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Managing Fears and Worries in Early Childhood


Parents need to teach young children that fears and worries should be acknowledged and that they are there to listen and protect them. Some fears by parents should be more accurately assessed such as fear of kidnapping which almost entirely occurs by relatives, not by strangers. If parents have more accurately placed fears and worries then their guidance for their young children can be more effective. By establishing family rules for confronting possible dangers, guidance can be given without creating excessive worry.

Keywords: Child fears, child worries, parent fears, stranger danger, child caution, trust, early childhood emotional development, early childhood social development

Sources of Anxiety

Everyone has to manage fears and worries all through life. However, these feelings are more prevalent in childhood. There are several reasons why this is the case. Young children have active imaginations and not always able to distinguish fiction from reality. For them, daytime includes considerable reliance on fantasy and sleep brings more nightmares. Growing up today includes additional worries because children are exposed to a broader range of experiences than in the past. The apprehension of parents constitutes another influence. Television and the Internet present continual reminders about situations that have potential to endanger children. Together these factors should motivate parents to carefully reflect on teaching children to manage fear and ways in which these lessons can favorably influence mental health. The goals of this presentation are to identify how parents can teach children to assess danger and balance their need for caution and trust. You will learn family rules children can rely on to avoid potential hazards. Methods are recommended to help your child recognize that fear is universal and feel comfortable sharing worries with you.

Messages About Danger

Five-year-old Jonathan examines a milk carton in front of him while he eats his breakfast cereal. He wonders whether the missing boy who is pictured on the carton will be found and if his parents will ever hear from him. Down the street 6-year-old Mark examines a postcard that came in the mail. The card includes a photograph with printed details that describe a missing girl about his age. Eight-year-old Denise is watching a television program that is interrupted by an Amber Alert, the process of identifying a license plate, color and make of a car in which a young girl was taken earlier today against her will. Nine-year-old Jeffrey has returned from the grocery store and is helping his mother carry in packages from the car. Every bag that he places on the kitchen counter portrays an image of some child that has been reported missing. Jeffrey thinks about how he would escape if someone tried to take him away from his family.

No one knows how repeated exposure to these kinds of messages about missing persons can influence a child's outlook on life. However, it is certain that such reports have dramatically altered the way parents orient daughters and sons about relationships and interpreting the current environment. Parents are naturally upset when television or some written announcement informs them that a registered child molester has been allowed by a court to move in their neighborhood or reports that children have been exploited by pedophiles they meet on the Internet. Sometimes it seems that there is no end to the list of dangers that girls and boys could potentially encounter.

In response to what parents see as a hostile environment, some of them conclude that it is necessary to warn their children against having any contact with strangers. Others fingerprint and videotape their youngsters, keep up-to-date photographs or implant dental microdots that carry identification numbers filed in computer registries. The prevalence of these practices underscore the widespread need for parents to reflect on whether they are protecting their children or only frightening them. How can parents put justified concerns in perspective so safety rather than fear dominates their behavior? Certainly, the increased awareness about potential for harm to children is bound to cause parent worry. Nevertheless, mothers and fathers should carefully reflect on their own fears in relation to the evidence for them before they can expect to help frightened youngsters deal with situations that may be unsafe.

The goal should be to present a balance of concern regarding safety, fear, and trust. This balance is crucial because the ways parents handle personal fears determines how they prepare their children to live in a world where unsafe situations may often be observed. One way to begin this lesson is by teaching children about how to assess risk, an important ability that governs the extent of fear that people experience.

Risk Assessment

Parents whose fears cause them to believe most people cannot be trusted are incapable of teaching children how to trust others. Make no mistake about the emotional needs of children. It is essential for them to have an overall impression that the world is a safe and friendly place rather than see their environment as filled with danger and unfriendly people. Nevertheless, motivated by their own anxieties and worries, some parents discourage children from speaking with anybody they do not know. This decision brings about a reciprocal dilemma. If children should not talk to strangers, then strangers should not speak to children.

Older adults are often disappointed by their lack of opportunity to talk with children. Marie, a grandmother, describes one of her experiences this way, "I was in the drug store and wanted to check my blood pressure. An elementary school boy was at the machine when I got there. By looking over his shoulder, I could see the reading of 110/70 on the machine and said, "Wow, I wish my blood pressure was that low." He looked at me in an odd way, said nothing, and walked away. When I try to have a conversation with boys or girls, even those who live on my own street, is is always the same. They just don't respond. Other friends my age report a similar reaction from the children."

The consequence is that many safe, well-meaning adults who children could turn to for help are becoming reluctant to interact with youngsters they meet. This reaction is often reported by older adults in malls where the 'Don't talk to strangers' practice prevents intergenerational conversations. It seems natural to smile at a young child, to say hello or to exchange some brief comments. Yet, more often people are likely to reason, 'I should not be talking to unsupervised children because I do not want to appear to be a threat to them. They probably have been told to not speak with strangers and, in effect, I am encouraging them to disobey their parents.'

The accuracy of this perception is confirmed by surveys of students in kindergarten through grade three. When they are asked to identify their greatest fears, strangers are mentioned more often than any other concern. Children readily admit that their parents have taught them this fear. How accurate is this common lesson that parents teach about strangers? The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the United States identifies each reported case as an abduction by an unknown individual, kidnapping by a parent, or runaway who chooses to be gone. Unfortunately, the specifics of each case are not mentioned by the agencies that print the warning flyers, grocery bags, and milk cartons. Thinking of missing children as a homogenous group has produced confusion and unwarranted fears. Consequently, if parents lack information, they may inaccurately suppose that, in most cases, strangers are the major cause of missing children.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has determined that this conclusion is inaccurate. Each day 22,000 children are declared missing, 800,000 each year. The largest subgroup of 450,000 missing children are juveniles who have run away. Of the 350,000 kidnapped, 99% are abducted by a family member who does not have custody, typically father. Only 200 children, less than 1% of the total kidnapped, are taken by strangers. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has acknowledged that unwarranted paranoia about strangers exists. For this reason the agency now shuns their previous message in years past about 'stranger danger.' The center states that it no longer supports a 'stranger danger' message. Children do not have the same understanding of who is a stranger as an adult might; so, it is a difficult concept for a child to grasp. It is more beneficial for children to help them build the confidence and self-esteem needed to stay as safe as possible in a potentially dangerous situation they encounter rather than teaching them to be 'on the lookout' for some particular type of person. The 'stranger danger' message is ineffective and, based on what we know about those who harm children, danger to children is greater from someone they or their family knows than from a stranger.

There are also misperceptions surrounding alleged dangers that students face while they are at school. News reports about the prevalence of drugs and violence have led some parents to suppose that murder represents a significant potential threat to their child's life. On the contrary, of 55 million elementary and secondary school students in America, 30 are murdered at school each year. During the same period of time, parents or caretakers kill 3,000 youngsters at home. Stated another way, children murdered at school are 1% of those killed at home. The illogical response to these figures has been to increase the funding for metal detection and presence of security guards in schools to prevent a possibility of someone bringing weapons on campus or coming there to harm students.

Balance the Need for Caution and Trust

The rate of serious crime in the nation has declined in the past five years, but media coverage of crime stories increased by 600% over the same period. Some people do not like to watch local news because the content centers more on tragedy and bad events than good ones. Still, there is no point in blaming the media for our own lack of critical thinking. The fact that negative stories get more than their fair share of attention on television, the Internet and newspapers is an insufficient reason for the public to ignore objective evidence. When 99% of child kidnappings, 98% of child abuse, and 99% of child murders implicate relatives, a rational conclusion would be to increase attention on trying to improve family life.

For the same reasons, it is illogical to continue to identify all strangers, childcare workers and community volunteers in youth agencies as people who cannot be trusted. The assumption that most people would harm our children is false and therefore should be rejected. Boys and girls must be taught to trust but also to recognize suspicious behavior. Let's examine some ways these important purposes can be achieved.

Parent Guidelines for Dealing with Danger

Divorced or separated parents with child custody should not talk about strangers as being a major threat. Since 90% of all custodies in the United States are assigned to mothers, the most likely persons to kidnap children are non-custodial fathers. This means mothers should assess their own situation before deciding what to tell boys and girls about missing children. It may not be in the child's best interest to be told a non-custodial parent steals most kidnapped children. The idea their parent would do such a thing may bother children more than the prospect of being taken by a stranger.

If a mother decides that she is not in a high-risk group because there is no custody battle underway and no threats have been made from the estranged spouse, then her conversations with children can focus on possible situations and ways of responding to them. On the other hand, if the former spouse seems a potential problem, certified copies of the legal document about child custody should be placed in the child's file in the school office. And, if the non-custodial parent threatens to take the child, the school principal and teachers should be alerted so they do not allow the child to leave school with an unauthorized adult.

Parents from single and intact families should stop warning children about everyone who is a stranger. The fact is strangers are not a common danger. In the vast majority of cases involving crimes against children, the youngster knows the perpetrator. It could be a relative, an older friend, the brother of a playmate, or a man who lives nearby. Children can easily be taught to run away from a stranger, but teaching them to say 'No' and leave adults that they are familiar with and their parents have trusted is another matter.

Parents should formulate family safety rules to help protect children from known and unknown dangers. Boys and girls should be told these family rules must be followed at all times. "Never go anywhere without telling Mom, Dad, Grandma or your babysitter" is a good rule since it prevents situations that parents would not condone. Encouraging children to trust their intuition and gut feelings about situations is important because parents will not always be around when there is a need to assess danger. Children should understand that "Anyone who tries to get you to break a family rule is a bad person. That person deserves to get in trouble so go tell an adult--Mom, Dad, your teacher, the principal--right away when someone is bad." This rule defines bad people in terms of behavior instead of appearance. Children can apply the bad person rule to people they do not know as well as familiar faces without emphasizing danger from either source.

People who exploit children generally rely on methods that would be ineffective with adults. They use intimidation, which is most effective with boys, and girls who have never been taught to challenge adult authority. Elementary school age children trusted by parents to use their own judgment whenever any situation appears to present danger are less likely to do what they are told by coercive adults. Inner strength is necessary to go against directives that children believe could jeopardize their safety. If boys and girls in primary grades can acquire confidence, learn the family rules about how to ask adults for assistance, and feel that it is the right thing to do, they will be better equipped to assess danger, cope with scary circumstances, and still regard their world as a safe place.

Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Americans have confronted some unprecedented fears and worries. Certain parents prefer to avoid talking with children about dangers to our country. However, the more practical response assumes that the more children know, the better they can cope and the safer they can feel. The Department of Homeland Security recommends that families discuss the need to be observant and what can be done to reduce danger. Children should be aware that the government tries to protect our family by giving media warnings when appropriate about threat levels, amber alerts, and that steps are taken by airport security and air marshals who are assigned to some airplanes. Despite these precautionary steps, there is a need to go beyond better training for firemen and police to deal with potential disasters. Everyone should remain on guard. Each family is advised to prepare a disaster kit needed in the event of an emergency that required them to leave home. This kit should contain water, juice, canned goods, medication and bandages.

Parents should make certain that their children know how to contact a particular person if family members somehow become separated. Boys and girls need to have a landline phone number to reach the contact person and understand where to go if they find themselves alone. And, of course even preschoolers should be able to tell police the full names of parents, home address, and phone number. Many parents do not recognize their responsibility for providing these lessons to their children.

Your Child Needs to Know

Many young children are unprepared for fearful situations they might have to face. Make sure your child knows certain essential information. These simple lessons are not learned quickly so be patient and keep emphasizing them. Practice will bring the desired result. When a child can answer correctly, ask these questions in the presence of relatives and friends. The adults will tell your child they are pleased important lessons have been learned. Young children should know:

  • His or her full name, address and phone number
  • Your full name and exact name of the place where you work
  • How to dial 9-1-1 in order to get help
  • What to do if they think someone is following them
  • How to answer the phone without letting callers know they are alone
  • What to do in the case of a fire

Responding to Child Fears

It is unfortunate that some parents teach their own unfounded fears to children and yet dismiss the fears uniquely experienced by boys and girls. Indeed, many adults are ashamed of fearful children and may try to banish fright by denial. We recall taking four year old Steven to the zoo. Because crocodiles fascinated him, quite a bit of time was spent in the facility housing a reptile exhibit. During that time, another little boy arrived with his family. The boy was afraid and preferred to stay at some distance from the floor-to-ceiling window behind which crocodiles lay. Taking notice of his fear, the boy's father lifted him up, then held him against the window, and announced, "See, it's like I told you; they're locked in so you have no reason to be afraid." Imagine how confusing it was for this little boy to be told he was not afraid when he really was scared. His parents, those all-knowing authorities, must know more than he does. Some children thus develop an alienation from their own feelings. They learn to mistrust their own senses and rely on other people to tell them what to feel. It would have been better for the father to tell the child that the crocodile was dangerous, and you are afraid, but we are protected behind this window and will be careful.

Sometimes children face an opposite but equally firm denial that their experiences are unique. Each of us has heard people say, "I know just how you feel." Actually, none of us can know exactly how another person feels. However, this limitation of empathy, the ability to participate in someone else's experience, becomes less disturbing when we realize that it confirms our assumptions about being individuals. For parents and grandparents this means that the fears of children should be respected whether we share these fears or not. Our acceptance of others seems to play a much larger role in determining interpersonal success than does our understanding of other people. If we limit our respect to those whose experiences we understand, the quest for understanding itself becomes an obstacle to successful relationships.

Besides denial and empathy, ridicule is a common response to fear. But laughing at another person's fears does not decrease the fear. Instead, the effect is to lower that individual's confidence. Telling a child that "It's just a dream and not real," may be well intended, but still inspire shame for having fears that the grownups declare to be unwarranted. To laugh at somebody's fears or call the person some derogatory name such as wimp, sissy, baby, or chicken, is to undermine the relationship. Children and adults whose feelings are ridiculed soon stop sharing their experiences. The tragedy for parents is they reduce the chance to know their child better and forfeit an opportunity to help the youngster learn to cope with fears and worries.

The first step in overcoming fear is to acknowledge it. Because young children identify closely with parents, a sound way to reduce the harmful consequences of children's fears is for parents to admit their own worries. A child who is afraid of the dark, of being alone, or starting school should be assured by adults that fear is a natural reaction and telling about fears does not make someone a coward or a sissy. Courage is not the absence of fear; it is the mastery of fear. When people lose touch with the possibilities of danger, they also lose the healthy sense of caution that normally serves to protect them.

A certain degree of fear appears necessary to exercise good judgment. Plato, the Greek philosopher, said, 'Courage is knowing what to fear.' And, although parents may insist that there is no danger in the dark, a child knows that mother does not go out alone late at night, and that doors to the house are double locked at bedtime. Children should not be made to feel ashamed of expressing their feelings of fear. After all, many adults are afraid of getting old, being alone, getting fat, losing their job, developing cancer, falling down, becoming a burden, and being rejected by other people. However, adults have an idea of what fear is whereas children worry long before they can comprehend the notion of fear.

The child whose fears are unsuspected or unshared bears an added burden of loneliness. No other aspect of experience is more deserving of compassionate attention than a person's fears. Also no aspect is more baffling to a child or those who want to provide help. Certainly children should have someone they can go to who will listen to their worries without judging them. They have this experience if parents accept them unconditionally. No child should have to repress fear or pretend bravery to gain the esteem of parents. When the worries relatives have in common and those that are unique to each person are identified, family members are more able to help one another. Make an effort to identify the worries of your children and share your own fears with them as well.


Children inevitably acquire certain fears passed on by their parents. Mothers and fathers should make sure that they also teach boys and girls to gauge risks rather than believing that exceptional situations represent the norm. It is important to support a balance between children's need for caution and their need for trust. Instead of viewing trust as a naive orientation, recognize that trust is the basis of intimate relationships, mental health, and sense of community. By establishing family rules for responding to potential danger, guidance can be given without creating excessive worry. As children grow older, they are more able to describe their fears and worries. Parents, other relatives, and teachers should be willing to listen to the fears of children and share their own worries as well.