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Paranoid Parenting

In her book, Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had (Without Going Nuts With Worry), argues that kids today are as safe or safer than we were when we were kids. And yet, are we more fearful than our parents?

While there’s no doubt that, as millennial parents, we’ve necessarily pulled the reigns tighter in some ways, maybe the question is more personal than generational … and possibly simpler: Is it a question of “yes” vs. “no”?

Lyn Connolly, mom of three, admits, “I come from a very fear-based family. Every time I’d leave the house as a little girl, my mother would tell me to be careful … don’t talk to strangers … it put fear into my head.” She adds, “If we heard bad news on the radio, she would tell me that it could happen to us.”

Once Connolly became a mother, faced with a free-spirited daughter, she knew she didn’t want to impart the same messages. “I was told by a therapist … by loading [my daughter] down with the fears I grew up with, I would just be passing down [my own] irrational fears. I took that to heart,” she says.

So instead of tightening the reigns, Connolly learned to let go. But saying “yes” can be a struggle for parents raised in a just-say-no culture. In fact, according to experts, the average toddler hears that word approximately 400 times per day.

Any parent facing a scary prospect may be tempted to immediately say “no” to a child to ease concern that the child might get hurt.

Kim Reynolds, a licensed marriage and family counselor serving the North Texas area, reminds us, “A parent’s comments are powerful; and, sure, there are times when the best decision is to say, ‘no,’ but children also need to learn to weigh consequences and make appropriate decisions before acting. When a parent’s interactions with a child are respectful, reasoned and consistent, and the parent remembers to breathe and remain open to negotiation, the child is encouraged toward independence, creativity, optimism, leadership and self-control.”

When Scary Issues Arise
Jessica Moore’s family also copes with fear. “My 11-year-old daughter’s scariest issue is my illness, cystic fibrosis,” says Moore. “From infancy, Emily has seen my breathing treatments and multiple hospitalizations. Occasionally she asks ‘what if’ questions. I listen and try to answer only what she asks; and I am honest, including telling her when I don’t know the answer.” Because they have made themselves available and willing to talk, Jessica feels Emily knows she can always tell them her worst fears and, even if they can’t change them, they are there for her. “Fear is part of life and we grow from the experiences that draw us out of it. I pray not that Emily won’t have fears but that they will make her a stronger, more loving person,” Says Moore.

Colten Garcia used to be terrified of severe weather. “My husband and I encouraged Colten to learn everything he could about weather,” says Garcia. “We believe the more someone knows about a ‘scary’ thing, the less scary it becomes.” After watching weather documentaries and reading about tornadoes, Colten’s fear became his fascination, says Garcia. When daughter Gabi grew fearful of getting weekly injections for a medical condition, the Garcias sought the help of a child psychologist and learned the word “shots” was scary to her. “We removed the word from our family’s vocabulary,” she says.

Weighing Words
“Children who are taught to be fearful often miss out on being happy adults,” says Dallas-based Joyful Parenting author and columnist, Laurie Orloff. “While it is important to educate children about immediate dangers, keep them out of danger and give them more freedom and responsibility as they mature; it is most beneficial to work on raising happy, trusting and joyful children. Developing these qualities is like taking a daily vitamin against the illnesses in the world.”

Reynolds echoes the importance of listening to kids, especially to the words they choose to use. “Who, what, where, when, why and how, typically are used to ask for information rather than expressing emotions,” she says. “Parents can validate, empathize, explain and reassure a child just by asking how he is feeling and mirroring what they hear. It helps, too, to let your child know that their feelings are a reaction to a trigger. For example, a parent might say, ‘You got scared when the fire alarm went off, huh?’ followed with a reassuring statement such as ‘A lot of kids are scared of loud noises.’” However, Reynolds cautions against being overly sympathetic, giving too much advice, making light of a child’s emotion or sending a message that the child “should” not feel the way he does.

Sometimes that’s easier said than done, but, for example, while Lynn says, “[Learning to say yes] has been one of the hardest parenting lessons I had to learn,” she admits her daughter is now “older and … wise beyond her years … because she has the confidence in herself to make good decisions.”

And that, according to experts, is the overwhelming power of “yes.”