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Scaredgirl Q: In spite of telling my 6-year-old daughter about stranger danger, she kept running to the front door and opening it as soon as the doorbell rang. One day, I told her the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping story and explained to her that it is not safe to run to the door when strangers ring the bell. I told her to let adults do the talking when that happens. Ever since I told her this story 4 months ago, she comes to our room scared at night and says that she wants all the lights on in the house. She’s worried that some bad guy is going to come and get her from her bedroom window. I guess I was the one who invited the trouble by telling her Elizabeth’s story, but now I don’t know how to convince her that that is not going to happen and that we will be there for her. What should I do?
Facing Fears, in Scottsdale, AZ

A: Dear Facing Fears,

There seem to be two questions at play here: how do you address the terror your daughter has been experiencing ever since hearing this highly publicized story, and how can you teach her not to answer the door (unaccompanied) without scaring her? Fear reactions to media are quite common for young children in particular, even from descriptions of said media. In fact, a survey of 5-12 year olds showed that 37% of the children were scared by something they saw on the news, and they were most often affected by stories of stranger violence.

Studies about how to help kids deal with scary news stories show that it is effective when parents actively help their children understand what they are seeing and hearing.  However, since she heard about the story secondhand rather than seeing it herself, it sounds like you are doing all of the right things by trying to calm her fears.  Since she is still too scared to sleep, I would suggest that you discuss the situation with her pediatrician to determine whether it would be helpful for her to work through these fears with a therapist. In addition, because it sounds like some of your anxieties might have come through when you told her Elizabeth Smart’s story, it might be worthwhile for you to meet with the same therapist to talk about strategies for handling the situation moving forward. As parents, our own fears and confidence in dealing with such situations communicate far more powerfully than the words we say, so it’s possible that managing your own anxiety can help alleviate some of hers.

Regarding the issue of answering the door, part of the challenge with teaching young children to be cautious with people they don’t know is that they are often put in situations like playgrounds, new schools or sports teams where they are being encouraged to interact with people they don’t know. Your daughter runs to the door because she’s excited to try out her new social skills.

So how can you encourage her skills while maintaining her safety? One option is to make it clear to her that it’s great for her to answer the door—but only with you hard at her heels. Your presence will communicate that you are confident in her social skills, but that you are also there to support her no matter who is at the door. This will help her on the path to developing the kind of caution she will eventually learn to exercise on her own. 

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician®

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