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Paranoid Parenting's Pitfalls

As a child, Corrie Brock often played without adult supervision in the front yard of her family’s southeast Texas home. Fast-forward nearly three decades, and the Prosper mom of two young girls, ages 2 ½ and 5, wouldn’t dare let them do the same.

After all, when Brock was growing up in the late 1980s, “no one was going to come and get me out of my yard and take me away and sell me to be a sex slave,” she says. “That is a reality now.”

Or is it?

Given all of the scary segments about child abductions — and near abductions — seen on nightly newscasts, it’s easy to assume that predators hide around every corner.

Has the inundation of graphic images bolstered an epidemic of paranoid parenting?

Dr. Honey A. Sheff, a licensed clinical psychologist in Dallas, says there likely isn’t a parent around who hasn’t at one time or another allowed fear to direct her decision-making.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.

“When you parent out of fear, you run the risk of creating very anxious, very uncertain, very fearful children,” Sheff explains.

Statistics actually show that child abductions by strangers are down. Only about 100 children (less than 1 percent) are kidnapped annually, according to the Polly Klaas Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes child safety.

“I think generally the media blows everything out of proportion,” says Dr. Elizabeth McCarroll, an associate professor and undergraduate program coordinator in the family sciences department at Texas Woman’s University in Denton. “When we see these things on the internet and in the media, it starts to feel like, 'Oh my gosh, how are there any children in the world that are still safe?’”

To be sure, sound social science research demonstrates that the more news people watch on TV, the more they tend to overestimate the chances of bad things happening.

Brock doesn’t care.

“I make sure that my 5-year-old has her hand on me at all times and that I can see her at all times when we’re in stores,” she admits. “Maybe it’s irrational, but you have to be vigilant.”

This paranoid parenting typically stems from a parent’s fears, explains Tiffany A. Derrick, a licensed professional counselor at Counseling and Consulting Services in Fort Worth. “They project their own anxieties onto their kids,” she says.

Overworrying about everything you see and read can actually impede a child’s development. “Children may have difficulty building relationships and lack confidence,” says Dr. Rhonda Johnson, owner of the Center for Counseling and Family Relationships in Fort Worth.

One recent study followed parents and their kids into public parks and playgrounds over a two-month period and found that children whose parents hovered over them were less likely to engage in spontaneous play.

“These parents take away their child’s ability to problem-solve because they take away a child’s power and control,” Derrick says. “They’re taking away a child’s ability to experience life.”

So where’s the line? How do parents keep their children safe without giving them psychological problems down the road?

Exercise moderation. Being extremely strict makes children fearful, sneaky and dependent, while being too permissive doesn’t teach boundaries, Derrick explains.

Educate your kids — and yourself.

“The antidote for anxiety is education,” says Dr. Shannon Wolf, a professor at Dallas Baptist University and a licensed marriage and family counselor at Southcliff Baptist Church in Fort Worth. “Teach [kids] to be aware of their surroundings. Teach them to be savvy. And teach them to trust slowly. You want to teach them to look for red flags,” she advises.

Sheff recommends giving kiddos age-appropriate safety tools and information to help them protect themselves.

“You don’t say to a child, 'Don’t go with a stranger,’ because a 3-year-old or a 5-year-old doesn’t know a stranger,” she explains. “Everyone is a friend.”

Instead, teach them basic behavioral rules.

“Say, 'You don’t ever go with someone you don’t know. This is a rule in our family because not everybody is a nice person,’” Sheff suggests.

And finally, seek help for yourself, Johnson advocates. Parents need to get to the root of their feelings of anxiety so they can better process them and not displace them on their children.