Back Off, Parents! Are Your Fears Making Your Kid Afraid Of Life?

child afraid to explore on his own
Self, Family

The constant harping to "be careful" is making our children afraid of everything.

This week I sent one of my children off to college and my other two off to high school. If the news is any indication of the state of the world, I should probably be terrified to death. Should I have warned my children to watch out for rapists, murderers, machine-gun-toting high school terrorists, thieves, cheaters, drunk drivers, drug pushers, and the like? Well, I didn't because I don't want my children to spend their lives in fear. Yes, all of those bad things have happened in the world and I realize they can feasibly happen where my children attend school, too. Yet, if you read the numbers carefully, my kids probably have a better chance of winning the lottery than they do of becoming a victim of some random violent crime.

Periodically, I will sit at the park and listen to parents talking to their young children and this is what I hear, "Be careful, you could fall." "Don't touch that; it has germs." "Stranger danger! Don't say hi to that man, he could be dangerous." (This when it was the father of another child at the playground.) This constant fear-based talk isn't limited to the playground, it is alive and well in elementary schools where parents are giving fourth-graders kid-size ulcers with doom-and-gloom warnings like, "Don't get a bad grade or you'll never get a good job or get into an Ivy Leauge school and you'll be a failure in life." 

College campuses are even more intense, with helicopter parents saying: "I’m calling your RA because your room is too cold." "I'm calling your professor for an extension on your paper because you need your sleep." What's next, calling the President of the university to complain about the lack of kale cookies in the cafeteria? Is it any wonder that so many college kids have been branded "teacups" because they crack so easily under any pressure?

Yes, absolutely, it is our job as parents to keep our children safe, to warn them about reasonable dangers, and to advise them about good decision making that will help keep them safe. But, it is not our job to teach our children to be terrified of the world. Perhaps you live in a community with a higher crime rate and you do need to instill a sense of street smarts and caution in your kids (which areas to avoid and whom they may take rides from) but let's be honest, the greatest real threat most of our kids face in a day is whether or not they're wearing enough sunscreen. So why do we contantly bombard them with an onslaught of warnings about every slightly possible yet highly unlikely misery that could come their way?

I believe our real job is to teach our children to not be so fearful.

Squarely facing and then overcoming fear is one of the greatest strengths that any well-adjusted adult can master. Asking for that raise, speaking up in a meeting, taking the leap to change jobs, creating healthy love relationships, and parenting even the most difficult child are all real life challenges that require us to step out of our comfort zones straight into our fears in order to successfully move ahead. Why is it that we are seeing so many young adults struggling with this? Could it be that our constant harping to "be careful" has programmed our children to be afraid of almost everything? Are we actually teaching them to be paralyzed with fear vs. just reasonably cautious? And if so, is that really what we want for our children?

Learning to take calculated risks with confidence is an essential life skill. But if you're scared of the world, will you challenge yourself, look for new opportunities, or risk meeting new people? No! Fear will keep you stuck and stagnant. A terrified mindset makes human beings paranoid, pessimistic and gives them a permission slip to continually play small. However, children who grow up learning to manage their fears will be healthy risk-takers. They will evolve to seek challenges, try new things, and push themselves in ways that others might not (ahem, those are called future innovators, Mom and Dad).  

As parents, we desperately want to keep our children safe. Of course, we do! Our children are precious to us. But we also want to help our children thrive and become successful in life. Perhaps in doing so much the former we're accidently robbing them of the thriving part. If we keep our kids too safe and too scared, we are actually stunting their growth emotionally and intellectually. We become the barrier that limits their success, kills their confidence, and undermines their ability to become contributing members of adult society. 

So, yes, Mom. Yes, Dad. The world can be a scary place, but it can also be wonderful and exciting! And by teaching our children to be constantly terrified, we're missing the chance to teach them the most valuable lessons: how to handle themselves with self-confidence, self-sufficiency, and how to embrace and savor all of the joy and excitement that comes with diving in and living a full life. It's time to put our fear aside and put our children first. The next time you are about to say, "Be careful" to your children, maybe instead try, "You can do it. I have faith in you. I'm here if you need me." And then, let go and let them fly.  

Lisa Kaplin is a psychologist and life coach at

You can reach her at

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