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The Informed Parent

A Better Understanding Of Risk

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Jun. 04, 2012

Recently a friend sent me an article by Morgan House titled “The 5 Biggest Biases We Fall Victim to.” It discussed misperceptions about risk and focused on five financial biases investors fall into, and why they are fallacies. My friend wrote, “Could be adapted to one of your Informed Parent articles.”

When I read it I thought that, as parents, we do live with lots of erroneous beliefs. We misperceive the degree of risk, create danger when there is little or none, and feel safe when we should feel less so.

In the following paragraphs I have adapted House’s five fallacies to the art of parenting.

We tend to exaggerate spectacular and rare risks, and downplay common risks.

While choking, serious disease, and child abduction all happen, parents may spend more time talking to their children about how to avoid these risks than they do teaching how to prevent common everyday dangers. Clearly, we need to teach our children about chewing food properly, washing hands and covering mouths when coughing, and stranger danger. Over-talking them, though, creates more fear than safety.

Recently a five-year-old houseguest shut my back door, and the door harp chimed. She said, “This is so if someone comes in and tries to take you, you can call your mommy.” I felt sad that she lived with that much fear about a relatively unlikely situation.

Teaching young children to hold onto the hand railing while walking down stairs, walking and not running around a swimming pool and holding onto the door handle instead of the edge of the door when closing it alleviates many falls and pinched fingers. These everyday accidents occur far more regularly than the aforementioned spectacular, and tragic events.

The unknown is perceived to be riskier than the familiar.

Most parents understand the need to talk to their children about not engaging with strangers and not letting others touch them inappropriately. Many parents worry about their child being abducted or molested by strangers.

Yet, child molestation and abduction data indicate that the stranger risk is uncommon. Ninety percent of child molesters and about 75% of abductors know their victim. They are a family member, educator, caregiver, or acquaintance. They are not the person lurking in the bushes waiting to abduct or molest an unsuspecting child.

Parents best protect their children by teaching them the difference between a hug and appropriate touching versus touching that is not appropriate--even from someone they know and love. They teach them to run away and scream if anyone, known or unknown, tries to lure them into a car.

Personified risks are perceived to be more hazardous than anonymous risks.

When we name something, someone, or a situation, it becomes more personal, intimate, and perhaps scarier. An example is the media hype that comes out every season about the current flu of the year. A named flu, such as Swine Flu, seems more ominous that a common influenza virus.

The same can be said about using adjectives when talking about illness. Have you ever noticed what happens when you describe your child’s cold as being “very bad” as opposed to simply describing it as “having a cold?” Often calling it very bad results in your child hanging her head or getting an especially pathetic facial expression. A coughing attack may suddenly come on. Drama is at its height!

It is important not to downplay illness. On the other hand, creating fear by making it bigger than it is or giving it a scary name doesn’t serve our children.

We underestimate risks in situations we do control, and overestimate risks in situations we don't control.

Parenting teens provides numerous examples of this myth. The teen years offer a steep learning curve. Most teens experiment with risk in some way; many in relatively innocuous behaviors like not studying for a test or skipping a class one time “just to see how it feels and see what happens”. Others frequently engage in high-risk behavior. Parents may feel relatively sure and in control of what’s happening when their adolescent is at home. It’s when they‘re away from the nest that worry occurs.

Unfortunately, parents do not always have as much control over what happens under their roof as they think. Abuse of prescription drugs frequently occurs qt home. Teens raid their parents’ medicine cabinet or overuse drugs prescribed for their own condition, such as ADHD. Many parents are unaware of how their adolescent is using the internet. What teens are watching and whom they correspond with over the internet can be psychologically and emotionally risky.

Of course, these same risks can occur outside the home. In addition,  teens can be oblivious to the risks of driving under the influence of alcohol, texting while driving, or surpassing the speed limit. These are the situations many parents are concerned about and over which they feel they have no control.

The most important step parents can take to assist their teens to take fewer dangerous risks, either at home or away, is to establish good communication. It’s difficult to bring up sensitive topics with teenagers. Yet communication may be the best preventative of risky situation.   A New York Health Department study indicated that only about 30% of teens learn “a lot about drug abuse” from their parents. It also stated that kids who learn about drug abuse from their parents are about half as likely to use drugs as those that haven’t had that conversation with their mom and dad.

While talking about drinking and driving or texting while driving will not assure that your teen won’t engage in these risky behaviors, studies done by insurance companies indicate that teens whose parents have ongoing discussions with them about safe driving have overall safer driving records than those who don’t.

We estimate the probability of something by how easy it is to bring examples to mind.

How many times have you found yourself saying something like, “My child always tantrums when I tell her ‘No’” or “My 13-year-old never participates in family functions.”? Most parents can come up with numerous examples of  situations where these behaviors occur. We even expect them. We might label such behaviors as “common” for the particular age and not take the steps to handle them effectively.

What we fail to recognize, what we don’t consider, is our loose use of the words always and never. Perhaps our toddler does sometimes tantrum when told “no” and our adolescent doesn’t like to participate in all family functions. If, in fact, always and never are the appropriate words to describe behaviors perhaps something is happening that we are not considering--examples that wouldn’t easily come to mind. Maybe our toddler or older child who always tantrums or our teen who never participates in family functions is experiencing an emotional upset that requires professional help. Perhaps something physical is going on that needs to be addressed by the pediatrician.

In summary, life is risky. What is right under our nose and what is “out there” and unknown both pose risks. What is important  in parenting, just as in all life, is awareness. When we pay attention, choose our words carefully and parent as effectively as possible, we minimize the risks for our children and ourselves. By not falling into the trap of risk myths or fallacies, we are grounded and fall into less fear ourselves and create less fear for our children. 

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