Are you freaking out because your child scares the heck out of you all the time? Does he seem constantly in danger of death or dismemberment? Some kids seem to have no fear whatsoever.
There’s no way to tell how a child is going to turn out, whether they will be cautious or headstrong. But once you’ve got what seems like a fearless child, you feel like you may never sit down again.
How do you teach a young child to be afraid? I don’t mean that the child should be afraid all the time, but what I mean is, how do you teach a child to respect situations that are dangerous and to take care of themselves?
When do toddlers understand danger?
As parents, we want our babies to understand danger as quickly as possible. Naturally. The thing is, toddlers don’t easily develop any sort of understanding about danger, and that understanding often doesn’t develop until they are closer to 4 or even 5 years old.
Age definitely seems to have a lot to do with it. In my own personal experience, I had a child who walked out early, and two children that walked late. My early walker was very mobile well before his brain had a chance to grow enough to really appreciate the danger of the situations he was in. All he knew was that his legs were moving and away he went. This meant that I was constantly chasing him because he could not evaluate his situation. He fell a lot, he had tons of bumps, scrapes, and bruises.
My other children who walked later, they seemed to have a better appreciation of their surroundings by the time they walked. I think that just having a few months to mature really made a difference for them getting an understanding of what the world around them looked like. They were both more cautious, and while they still fell a lot, they were injured a lot less. I attribute this to their age, absolutely, more than I would personality.
Even if a child won’t fully understand danger until they are older, you can work with them to help them start.
But let’s say you have a child that seems to have no fear whatsoever. How do you help them learn to appreciate danger? First, I would work very hard to communicate with them calmly and directly, about the characteristics of things. Many parents simply pick up their kids and move them around when danger looms, or holler the word CAREFUL over and over.
A child doesn’t understand what CAREFUL means, or if they know the word, they can’t tell necessarily what they should be careful of. A parent needs to work on communicating accurately what it is that is dangerous so the child understands.
For example, a child might be climbing a play structure. The watching parent feels anxiety and asks the child to be careful (or yells CAREFUL from the side of the playground). Instead of yelling CAREFUL, the parent could stand next to the child and say, those bars are really slippery, make sure you have a good hand hold before you step so that you don’t fall. This gives the child some actionable advise that they can put into play right away, and doesn’t leave them hanging on the word careful. Frankly, if you are yelling CAREFUL all the time, it’s likely that they just tune you out and aren’t really hearing you anyway.
Don’t assume that because your child doesn’t speak to you that he doesn’t understand your words. You can explain to him why something is dangerous, and even point it out to him so that he can look for it as well.
Help them learn to respect their environment around them.
Another thing that you should consider doing if your child seems to have no fear, is to start giving your child a chance to fall down and experience the outcome of having no fear and not paying attention to the dangers and their surroundings. This means that you should find a place for your child that is age appropriate physically, and then step back and let them do their thing.
If they are in danger of falling off of something small where the chance of them being injured is small, maybe it’s time to let them fall. If they are running on gravel and you are afraid they’re going to fall, perhaps it is time to close your eyes and let them fall.
Children learn by doing, there is no question about it. They learn to respect their environment by interacting with it and sometimes by getting hurt in it. If your child falls down, it doesn’t mean that you are a bad parent. In the age of hovering and helicoptering, children are having fewer and fewer opportunities to learn about the world that they live in and to understand how best to act in it.
I’m not blaming you for your child’s fearlessness, or telling you that you caused it by hovering. Fearlessness can be a great asset in an adult. If you can keep them alive until they are grown, they may be an amazing stunt man, or fall in love with skydiving. It’s just hard when they are small.
Focus on specific situations.
If your child is still pretty small, start helping her learn about danger by addressing specific situations. Road crossing, the top bunk of the bunk bed, the hot stove, the grumpy neighbor’s dog. Talk about each of those situations calmly at his level, in clear and concise words. Even simple words like “hot,” “sharp,” and “ouch” are better than “careful.”
Give her a word to indicate the danger, and then also show her the solution and what you want her to do each time. The busy road equals hand holding, and be consistent about it even if she balks. Bikes and scooters mean helmets, no exceptions, even if it is just for a second to put it away.
Don’t create the impression that they are indestructible.
Another thing that I would be really aggressive about doing is to stop helping your child do things they are not old enough to do. It is very common for well-meaning parents, grandparents, and friends, to lift up children on to play structures or onto bikes or into situations that they are not old enough to handle on their own. Once the child is there, they must be supervised by a parent for their own health and safety for danger of serious injury exist.
These are the types of situations that children should not be in, because they learn from these opportunities that they can do things that they actually cannot. A child who cannot climb a ladder should not be placed at the platform on the top. A child who is physically able to climb the ladder is also in most cases able to understand the fact that the platform on top is high, because they had to maneuver themselves step by step up to the top.
In most cases too, as a child is learning about the ladder on the bottom rungs, they fall off from the bottom, not from the top. Children are going to fall, and it is best for them to have those opportunities to fall while they are still close to the ground, and small. We don’t want a child who is 10 or even 15 to be learning for the first time that it hurts when they fall down. We need to stop putting children in situations that are too mature for them because they completely skip the learning process that is required to make them safe when they get into that position.
Another thing that we do as parents is that we prevent them from suffering. Of course we do. But pain (especially for children who are extra headstrong and wild) is a great teacher. Things hurt when you aren’t careful, and when you don’t pay attention. A child we is out of control needs to learn that pain is a natural consequence of some behaviors, and it is okay as parents to let them experience it.
Think about how often your child demands help to balance, to be lifted up, to climb. Let them do what they are capable of, and accept their frustrations when you refuse to help them go beyond it. The result is that they will discover the limits of what they are capable of, and they will also feel more pride in their small accomplishments when they do it on their own.
Help them develop discipline and self-control.
My children have very little impulse control. They are in a stage where they want independence and control. In addition to dangerous actions, we also see a lot more tantrums around diaper changes, toddler hitting, and struggles over bedtime.
If they stopped to think about dangerous things before they acted, most likely, they wouldn’t do them. But they can’t stop themselves long enough to think. If you can help your child development some impulse control, you might also help them develop skills that will help them keep safe.
With a small child, this starts with very small things. Simply waiting to take a turn, for example, is an important part of developing self-control. Stopping themselves from grabbing the treat off the plate for a few minutes, waiting in line with other children, letting someone else speak first. You can even enroll them in activities where discipline is an important part of the activity, such as in martial arts.
This may not stop your child from swallowing coins or climbing to the top of the fridge, but it will start the process.
Put them in environments where they are safe to be reckless.
If you have a child that seems bound and determined to climb high, to jump off, to run fast, to fall down, no matter what you do, you could try leaning in. If he loves to climb, try supervised climbing lessons at the local rock gym. (at least he’ll be in a harness) If he loves to flip and jump, try some gymnastics (which has spotters and the foam pit).
When they get out of control, you can help rein them in by reminding them that your child is to save his wildness for his next trip to his lesson.
Make sure they get enough physical activity.
I frequently see more reckless behavior from my children when they need more physical activity. They are bursting with energy, and if I don’t put them in a position to burn it off, their behavior does become more reckless. Get some of those danger-wiggles out with a safe but very physical activity, and hopefully when you get home he’ll be too tired to swing from the rafters.
Check in with your pediatrician.
If your child truly seems to have no fear, seems to not notice when they are seriously injured and seems to really feel no pain at all, you should talk to your pediatrician about the potential for your child to have a condition that actually prevents him from feeling pain and learning about the world.
Another thing to consider is whether you child might have autism or asperger’s syndrome. If you don’t have much experience with children on the spectrum, you might not even realize that their brains look at situations much differently than we do. You might think that the danger is obvious, but to him, the danger is not. Therefore, it is unreasonable for you to expect him to understand.
Children with sensory processing struggles may be distracted by the world around them, so much that they can’t perceive the environment as well as you.
This article isn’t about diagnosing, but something to consider if you think your danger-magnet child is more reckless than other children of the same age.
Remember that much of this will pass with time.
Looking back at my own children, I would like to think that I taught them a lot about the world and how to be. But if I’m being honest with myself, they learned the majority of what they know about the world from their own experiences. They learned much more about riding their bikes careful from crashing them than they did from me talking to them. I know that they learn more about being safe on play structures from banging their faces and falling off of them than they did with me yelling at them about safety.
Respecting danger is one of those things that children often need to experience the consequences of. We want to think that we can teach them and guide them about danger, but in many cases it is most often our job to simply keep them from serious physical harm while giving them opportunities to experience minor pains and minor injuries in learning the rules of the world. As a parent, we have to let them get scraped knees, and we have to let them trip and slip and fall. Otherwise, they won’t learn how to respect the world and they will never learn how to understand what is dangerous and what is not.
Emily Anderson is a mother of three children, all under the age of 10. Located in the Pacific Northwest of the US, Emily is a mom and part-time blogger, jumping in front of the computer when the kids are sleeping. She started this blog in April of 2019 and is proud that the blog is now paying for itself. If you want to know about her journey as a blogger, check out out her personal digital journal or her post about failing her way to blogging success.