Really need help soothing my daughter's fears
October 7, 2016 10:57 AM   Subscribe

So someone told my six-year-old daughter that bad people take little kids and kill them. I wish I could say it's not true. It's just so unlikely. But kids don't understand probability. What can I say to put her mind at ease? She's been scared to be away from me (like, in another room even) for three weeks now and I just found out that this is what has been bothering her.

We talked a little about it last night but I don't think I was helpful. She wanted to know why people would do this, and of course I had no answer. I told her "That's not going to happen to you" but she's smart enough to know I can't guarantee that. We talked about how we lock our doors and how she is never to anywhere with someone who is not her, teacher, mom and dad, etc. All in all I feel like it was a parenting fail. I need to go back to her and talk again and allay these fears. She shouldn't have to be so scared and I feel terrible for her.
posted by kitcat to Grab Bag (26 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Carolyn Hax just wrote a column about dealing with anxious kids that might help you.
posted by Brittanie at 11:03 AM on October 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think most kids understand probability just fine. I remember something similar happening to me when I was in second grade (so maybe one year older) and my mom told me it was much more likely I would die in a car crash on the way school. It sounds weird, but I felt better and I got the point it was very unlikely to happen to me.
posted by seesom at 11:04 AM on October 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think the car accidents comparison would work on a certain kind of child, but not this one. I'm afraid she would just add 'riding in the car' to her fears.
posted by kitcat at 11:07 AM on October 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

Mine know this (they are 6 and 10). I can't remember how they found out, but I never made a big secret of it because I find it easier to explain how to pick a safe stranger when you need one if they are aware there are unsafe strangers (i don't teach strangerdanger because a lost child who can't talk to a stranger is a sitting duck for predators) and why they are unsafe.

But if they are anxious I take them to a busy shopping centre and show them all the people to whom nothing horrible happened when they were children. I talk about lightening strike (which is a bigger risk than stranger-abduction-and-murder) and point out that nobody is running around worrying about it. I talk about what sells newspapers and what us actually happening not being the same thing (because once they become aware of this it is everywhere). I taught them skills - how to shout "this is NOT MY PARENT" while slung over a shoulder, how to find a safe stranger and approach them (lots of nice ladies-with-prams have politely told them the time), how to identify the squicky "they're weird" feeling and act on it, how to roll under a parked car and scream FIRE FIRE.

I would suggest you read Protecting the Gift by Gavin de Becker. You can not only make your kid feel safer, you can make them actually safer. Mine felt much more confident once we'd done this. I would also say it us very normal for kids around 6 and 7 to become aware of and terrified by mortality. It will pass.
posted by intergalacticvelvet at 11:11 AM on October 7, 2016 [59 favorites]

I was an anxious kid and I was so scared of nuclear holocaust when I was growing up. The adults kept reassuring me, but what really helped was having my slightly older cousin explain the unlikelihood of it all. I needed to hear it from someone who was also a kid, just a bit more streetwise.

Is there a slightly older kid around who your daughter looks up to or trusts? That might work?
posted by kariebookish at 11:13 AM on October 7, 2016 [10 favorites]

Disclaimer - I'm not a parent. But I remember having some of these fears at six or seven, like literally lying awake in the middle of the night and thinking about them - and I also remembered how I talked myself out of them, or imagined myself out of them.

sometimes I made a list of all the people who would try to fight away the bad guy - my parents first, my neighbors, and then policemen. And teachers. And the principal (who was nigh-omnipotent to my mind then). And firemen. And the mayor. And the governor. And the president. And my parish priests. And as I made that list, I sort of pictured them all standing at the ready, in an increasingly-big crowd around me - my parents just outside my bedroom door, neighbors around the house, the police around our street, the teachers and principal all around the school, the governor standing watch over the state, then the army, etc., all of them standing on guard and at the ready protectively around me - and eventually I had to admit that one person being able to fight their way past all of that and ever get to me would be very unlikely indeed, and usually fell asleep right around then.

Or sometimes I surrounded myself with my stuffed animals, with a Pooh doll lying directly on top of my head - my thinking was that any bad guy who might come into my room would look at that, and say "oh, there's nothing in here, just a Pooh bear" and leave me alone.

But what this did was get me to fantasize about the protection I had on hand. The bad guys were fantasies in my head, and this kind of thing stocked my fantasies with enough defenders that the fantasy bad guys were sent packing. It strikes me that since you are fighting fantasies - which are pretty nefariously hard to combat - having protection that is also in the fantasy realm might be something to consider.

(And that protection feeling can be pretty lasting. To this day I have trouble falling asleep without having a pillow to wrap my arms around - exactly the same way I used to do with Pooh bear.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:14 AM on October 7, 2016 [21 favorites]

This was TOTALLY me at the exact same age; I heard the "stranger danger" lecture in kindergarten and I freaked out and was terrified if any of my family members (including my parents!) spoke to strangers for weeks. Fortunately, this was well before the pervasive "children need 24/7 supervision or something awful will happen" attitude got started, so I had time to recover.

What helped me was making a plan. I knew what to do if I was out biking and somebody made me feel uncomfortable. I knew which adults in the neighborhood I could go to. I also knew how to handle myself when I was out and about (because this was the early 90s and kids were out and about in the neighborhood from 6-7 yrs), I knew not to accept food or treats from strangers, etc. Basic street smarts. I practiced shouting/screaming, even, since I was a quiet kid and I needed to know I could make a loud fuss if necessary.
posted by Cygnet at 11:18 AM on October 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think empowering her that she can help protect herself is a great idea. We've approached this by choosing to talk about "tricky people" instead of strangers, because the concept clearly lays out what kinds of things dangerous people do (e.g., adults asking kids for help, asking kids to keep secrets from their parents). Armed with these red flags, she can know what to avoid. This article is helpful. She also sounds like a person who just might be more prone to anxiety generally. Teaching her how to manage that anxiety can be incredibly helpful. Therapy with a person who specializes in working with anxious kids, and preferably one who does CBT would be ideal there. This book is also a really nice resource.
posted by goggie at 11:29 AM on October 7, 2016 [12 favorites]

I was a super anxious kid at that age- dogs, house fires, hurricanes (we lived in the Midwest)- and probably what would have made me feel better if I was worried about kidnapping, was a few tools to make me feel less helpless and like I had some control over things. With that in mind, maybe a portable GPS tracker to go in her backpack, or a small personal alarm or safety whistle she can keep with her? They are tangible items she can hold that also serve a real purpose, which often offers more security at that age than trying to remember how unlikely something is. A self-defense class might also make her feel like she is more prepared.
posted by castlebravo at 11:32 AM on October 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Something my mother did (although she was the one who introduced me to the concept of bad people who might steal me because of her own untreated anxiety; thanks ma) was to have a code word that she'd give to any legit people who weren't usual caregivers who might come to pick me up if she was unavailable. So if someone turned up at school/a club and claimed she'd sent them to pick me up or otherwise tried to get me to come with them, I could grill them for the code word to find out if they were legit or not.

It only covers one angle where bad people might crop up, and fortunately we never needed to use it, but having occasional "you guys remember the code word, right?" conversations was helpful. It also helped that the code word was weird, specific and hard to guess (anaglypta).
posted by terretu at 11:32 AM on October 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Read or watch Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban together and talk about the boggart scene and the dementors in relation to how people can work on being brave in the face of fear. Discuss ways people can make themselves feel better when they are afraid. Talk about things you are afraid of and how you get through those fears or what you can do when something scary happens.

Also, another vote for helping her to feel in control of the situation. Somewhat related, 6 is a great age for beginner martial arts classes, which can be really helpful for empowering kids.
posted by donut_princess at 11:41 AM on October 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

As a kid, I had a dramatic and probably overactive imagination. One day I left a note in my dresser drawer that said I would write the word 'toe' everywhere if I was kidnapped, so if I disappeared everyone should please look for the word 'toe' wherever they could, thank you. (I was a very polite child.)

Well, my mom found it and she freaked out a little bit because she had no idea where I'd gotten the idea to write the note, but after a day or so she sat me down for a chat. She told me all the people I loved were constantly vigilant over me, 24/7, and were doing everything they could to see that I would not be kidnapped. She also pointed out to me habits and activities we already did or had in place that contributed to my safety - being dropped off and picked up door-to-door at school by a familiar adult, locking the front gate behind me, the emergency numbers in my backpack, staying within sight of whichever adult I was with at the time, calling my parents or grandparents from a friend's house if I was spending time there, not being out by myself after dusk, etc. She then asked me if that made me feel better and if there was anything else I thought we should do to make me feel safer. At the time, we had a door in the kitchen that opened into the enclosed backyard that didn't have a lock. I used to worry that the cat would go out at night because she didn't have a mom to tuck her in and she'd get kidnapped because she was out in the dark by herself. My dad installed a cat flap and a lock on the door in the next couple weeks, and I remember that alleviated a lot of my worry.

Point being, it might be useful to have a conversation with her about specific things you do to ensure her safety, and ask her if there's something specific in that regard that's concerning her that you could remedy.
posted by Everydayville at 12:03 PM on October 7, 2016 [8 favorites]

My daughter (9) has done this with different things (like sharks) and I have told her in a kind of serious/funny/wry way, "Look, there's a lot to be afraid of in the world and we're going to focus on only being afraid of the things that are actually likely to happen. So, you don't get to be afraid of sharks when we live in the city."

The actual occurrence of what she's talking about is practically zero. It's not going to happen to her. I would tell her that there are things she needs to worry about and things she doesn't and this is one she doesn't.

I wouldn't talk about the things you do to keep her safe because that is agree with her that she is at risk. I would focus on how it was a scary thing to hear that, but it just hardly ever happens and when it does happen it is because the person who does the hurting is hurt themselves. Hurt people hurt. That's how we talk about bullying.

I would be saying:

You're really anxious about this. What can we do to help you be less anxious?
Why do you think x told you that scary thing?

I would then check in with her throughout the day until it extinguishes, "Are you still worrying about people who hurt other people?" to show her that you're not afraid to talk about it. I wouldn't try to make her feel safe by telling her the door is locked because the kind of unsafe she is is not going to be helped by a locked door.

I don't quite now how to say it, but my focus would be on the trauma of hearing about people doing bad things, not about the fear of bad things happening to her. That's probably the real trauma.

It's OK to say, "I will talk with you about that when you're older," as well.

The thing is that it is true that it happens that kids get hurt by damaged adults, but it's also true (statistically) that it's not going to happen to her. That's where I'd focus if it needs to be about something happening to her.
posted by orsonet at 12:08 PM on October 7, 2016

Please read The Opposite of Worry by Lawrence J. Cohen. It is unlikely that explaining this particular situation in just the right way will take away your little one's tendency toward worrisome thoughts. Your concerns about adding car rides to her list of fears is very valid and it tells me that you are a parent who has a lot of love and empathy for your daughter. I can tell by the way you wrote your question that you have a lot of respect for her. I really think this book is going to speak to you as a parent and help you and your daughter feel so much better about this scary, beautiful world. Good luck, mama/papa. You got this!
posted by deadcrow at 12:40 PM on October 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

I don't get that she's an anxious kid or she has tendencies toward worrisome thoughts. Some idiot told her something REALLY STUPID AND SCARY.

Because she's 6, I would sit her down and tell her, "That person was WRONG and that was a terrible thing to say to you. This is NOT going to happen to you."

If I were weighing the greater good versus the unbelievably minimal (50 cases per year?) odds this will happen to her, I would lean toward telling her this person was just wrong and that's she's safe.

Statistically, the odds of a family member hurting a child are FAR greater than a stranger, but that's not something you would ever tell a kid, right? I lean toward telling her she's safe, this person was wrong, and have basic, common-sense conversations about safety down the road.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 12:51 PM on October 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

I wouldn't tell her what she can do to prevent this from happening. That isn't her job at age 6. I would leave empowerment for an older age. I would hold the party line that you are confident it's not going to happen to her. I agree that this is a "true enough" statement.
posted by pizzazz at 12:55 PM on October 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

This worry-related workbook helped our kiddo tremendously at just about that age: it works well for one specific fear or for a general tendency to worry. It is geared for this exact age range and is easy for kids to work through with parents over the course of a week or two. Our kiddo would occasionally ask to re-read it together. Highly recommend: What to do When You Worry Too Much
posted by Ausamor at 1:00 PM on October 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

yes I said yes I will Yes brings up really good points. I didn't mean to imply that there was anything irrational or atypical about your daughter's response. The book I recommended can be really helpful guide in our response to our children's fears, even if the trigger was someone making a horribly inappropriate statement.
posted by deadcrow at 1:00 PM on October 7, 2016

These are all such super fantastic answers that I can't choose any favorites! Thank you so much. I've put all the books on hold at the library.
posted by kitcat at 1:20 PM on October 7, 2016

The actual occurrence of what she's talking about is practically zero. It's not going to happen to her. I would tell her that there are things she needs to worry about and things she doesn't and this is one she doesn't.

As part of the tribe of people with anxiety, allow me to suggest that telling your worried daughter that she's doing it wrong and should just stop worrying is not likely to be helpful. Please do lots of loving and supportive things (which you will!) rather than doing anything that invalidates her feelings.

This article talks about emotion coaching and lists 3 steps to help parents help their children manage big emotions. It also recommends a John Gottman book that's supposed to be great. How much do I wish I had known about these things when I was raising my kid? So much!
posted by Bella Donna at 1:42 PM on October 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

I talk to my kids in probability terms all the time. By contrast, my wife is horrified by any chance, no matter how small, of something happening. I suspect probability doesn't freak people out of they're exposed to it early enough?
posted by jpe at 4:42 PM on October 7, 2016

I'm following this pretty closely because my child has similar worries sometimes, and I'm definitely going to read the books mentioned above. One thing to consider is that the person who told your daughter this could be one of her friends. We've experienced a few instances where other kids have been the source of instigating a new anxiety. The neighbor kid learns about kidnapping and tells her friends, a classmate tells her friends about scary strangers, etc. I understand your child doesn't know who told her or isn't telling you, so maybe this doesn't apply. But in cases where I have been able to pinpoint the source of the anxiety, it really helps because I can talk about it with my child and then say, "What do YOU think?" She often is able to then rationalize that you know, that friend also is afraid of dogs and hates Frozen, but my child loves dogs and Frozen and so maybe she doesn't have to be afraid of the same things as her friend. My child came to this pretty naturally and it seems to help her. Maybe it will help you in a future situation. Thanks for asking this question!
posted by areaperson at 5:38 PM on October 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seconding What to Do When You Worry Too Much. I'm a therapist and have frequently used this book with kiddos this age.

Also, just another thought, I usually also check in with parents of my anxious kiddos with these kinds of fears to make sure that kiddo isn't exposed to any of our 24 hr news cycle or sensationalistic local news as this tends to exacerbate even small fears. You don't sound like that would be happening, but there are tvs everywhere now (in my diner? Come on) and even a 3 minute story caught in little ears while playing at Gran's house can provoke fear fodder for weeks.

I also love the idea of helping her to build her circle of safe grown ups so that you're able to tell her, "Kiddo, it's okay to be worried. But all these safe people are around you and we can take those worries and keep them safe so you can fill your brain with kid things like helping bake cookies, and play dough, and baseball, and drawing!" You can even do something to symbolize the worry - most of my 6 yr olds enjoy making something and then actually giving the object to their parent.

Good luck, you got this.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 9:17 PM on October 7, 2016

I've found it helpful to dramatize the rarity of the Bad Things and make a big deal over what a big deal it would be. "Yes! You would be on the news from coast to coast, all over Canada! There would be LOADS of police working on the case of the disappearing [you]! Like, their whole job would just turn into looking for you, and meanwhile you'd be on the front page of the paper...!"


"You don't see much of that, do you... Yeah. It's such a big deal if it happens because it is crazy-rare. It's not like climbing a tree and breaking your arm. I have never known anybody it's happened to or known anyone who's known someone or... It does happen, but so does getting struck by lightning. It's so not going to happen that it is not worth worrying about."

Depending on your/your kid's view of the police you can play up the idea that the police would make it a priority and catch the bad guy and bring her home, etc.

I've explained that "creeps" (her term) like to prey on shy kids who don't have good relationships with their parents to my daughter -- they look for kids who won't shout "NO" and whose parent doesn't pay attention -- and she has really enjoyed and been much reassured by acting out scenarios. I pretend to drive by and claim I've lost my dog and could she come help look for it with me? Hop into the car, I'll give you $5, I just need somebody to help... She shouts (obscenities, sometimes; kind of hilarious) at me and/or yells FIRE or what-have you, and I go "YIKES" and speed off. I didn't generally bring it up; it's just hard to avoid -- even if you don't tell your kid about bad things, the radio will, the neighbour kids will, it's very hard to avoid.

A few years ago she announced out of nowhere that she wasn't afraid of "creeps" because she "knew the magic words." Oh? What are the magic words?

"Fuck you," she said, with all the wisdom a six can muster.
posted by kmennie at 4:56 AM on October 8, 2016 [8 favorites]

I was a very anxious child, and now I work with 600+ children with whom I have to practice "sheltering in place" incase a gunman comes into our school. We also have known many incidents of gun violence, and tragically one of our students died this summer while at a city run summer camp. I am also the mother to two teenagers. Terrible things happen, and it's the hardest thing to know that kids figure this out. I will never forget reading a book about MLK to a class of second graders, and when I read the part about him being shot, a student asked if I meant shots like at the doctor. It broke my heart to know she had no idea about guns and violence, but all too soon she would most likely know all about it.

I always try and help kids put their feelings into perspective. It's ok to be scared, being scared helps us to protect ourselves, but we also need to try and really think about why we are scared, because sometimes it's just because we do not have enough information. I think we all too often tell people not to feel their feelings. Yesterday one of my students was crying about her classmate who died. I told her I cry sometimes about him too. That his death was very sad, and it is ok to feel sad about it. I also said even though he died, there are many good things in the world, and sometimes when I feel especially sad about him dying I think about a memory I have of him. I asked her what one memory she had of him. Sometimes kids just need to talk out their feelings and be reassured, not necessarily be told that they shouldn't feel scared or that the world is a horrible place.
posted by momochan at 8:33 AM on October 8, 2016

Sidebar- do you know who told her that? If it's a kid, maybe have a chat with that kid's parent, or limit contact with them a bit if their parent would not agree that their kid has some inappropriate ideas that need a parenting intervention. That kid is either anxious or mean, and either mindset should be dealt with by a loving parent- otherwise this kid may well be the one to give your kid more ideas about sex, violence, death, etc., at inappropriate ages.

If it was an adult I'd want to have a serious talk with that adult about what is Not Helpful and probably limit contact with them, too. That's a shitty thing to say to a little kid and I don't like anyone who'd do that.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:46 PM on October 8, 2016

« Older What kind of esoteric hobby should my character...   |   What happens at HIV+ diagnosis where there's no... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.