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Rebecca Chicot PhD

Child development expert with a Phd from Cambridge University. She has worked on several best-selling books and BBC documentaries. She is the proud mother of three children.
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Stage 6 – preschool

Risk taking skills

Your toddler's antics will sometimes leave you with your heart in your mouth. Toddlers aren't very good or experienced at assessing risk or anticipating danger. This means they need lots of supervision. You need to make sure that your house is toddler proof and that the environments your toddler plays in are safe.
In Short
Anxiety is a natural part of being a parent, but try not to say ‘be careful’ too many times, and suggest ‘taking your time’ instead.

Psychologists have found that anxious mums are more likely to be critical of their children, worry what people think and display more fear and anxiety in common situations, which are more likely to instil fear and low confidence in their own children.

The 5 Ps (play, praise, pretend, personality and performance) to help reduce your anxious behaviour around your child.

Don't be too relaxed though, and be wary if there is complete silence... Quietness is frequently associated with your toddler utterly engrossed in an impulsive, possibly dangerous, behaviour. Keep an eye on them at all times.

Risk-taking behaviour in toddlers

Your toddler’s antics will sometimes leave you with your heart in your mouth. Toddlers aren’t very good or experienced at assessing risk or anticipating danger. This means your toddler will need lots of supervision and you need to make sure that your house is toddler proof and that the environments your toddler plays in are safe from dangers such as:

  • Big drops.
  • Sharp edges.
  • Dangerous animals.
  • Deep water.
  • Poisonous substances.
  • Things that might burn.
Good risk taking

Toddlers should not be ‘wrapped in cotton wool’. Where possible they need the freedom to balance, climb, paddle, get messy and safely interact with animals. This is how they will learn to assess and take appropriate risks in life.

So, when your toddler is playing or exploring try not to call out, ‘Be careful, be careful’, as this is just an anxiety-inducing alert without offering specific guidance. Instead, explain, ‘This hill is slippery so let’s take our time.’

In one study, ‘anxious’ mums (as assessed by questionnaires of unrelated general anxiety about life) were reported to say ‘be careful’, and generally highlight risks significantly more frequently than ‘non-anxious’ mums. Their children went on to become more anxious. Whilst we cannot conclude this is a direct cause and effect relationship, it can really help to think about the language we use about risk and danger around our children.

Dealing with parental anxiety to daily risks

Anxiety is a natural part of being a parent. When you drive home from the hospital with your ‘bundle of joy’, you suddenly realise that you are completely responsible for this little person. It’s no wonder that countless mums have crept up to their sleeping baby to double check they are breathing or spent the entire visit to the park hovering over their toddlers checking they don’t hurt themselves.

But where do the natural feelings of concern spill into something that is stressful for the mum and suffocating for the child? Anxiety is a big problem in the UK and tends to run in families. This is in part due to a genetic inheritance. However, children also ‘learn’ to be anxious from being around an anxious parent.

I completed a PhD to assess the impact of the parenting style of anxious mums (in comparison to mums who were rated and self-rated as low anxiety). In my research, I gave anxious and non-anxious mums lots of tasks and games to play with their children in a laboratory setting. In every task, the anxious mums were very different from the non-anxious mums. Whereas the more relaxed mums were warm and praising whilst making a house on an Etch-a-Sketch™ drawing game with their child, the mums with high anxiety levels were critical and controlling and the task was no fun for anyone.

Similarly, in a potentially ‘stressful’ task, I brought a big black box into the room with a hole in the top and asked the mums to encourage their children to lift out the ‘scary things’ from the bottom of the box.

Most of the children didn’t want to put their hand in the box regardless of what kind of mum they had! However, the non-anxious mums were not scared of the box themselves and didn’t make their child put their hand into the box. Instead, they were a model of calm and said things like, ‘I know, you hold my hand while I put my other hand in the box!’ They thought of their child first, made it fun and didn’t force their child to pull things out of the box.

The anxious mums were very different. They were scared of putting their own hand in the box…whilst at the same time insisting that their child lift out the rubber creepy crawlies!

Note
Top Tip: Give toddlers constructive advice about risks, and then join in, so they can copy how you do things.

Even if you are a lifelong worrier try to remember the 5 Ps to help reduce your anxious behaviour around your child:

Play

Children learn through play. Let them have a go and try not to micro manage what they try to do. Babies and children live in the moment, they love to try new things and learn as they play.

Praise

Everyone responds well to praise. Praise your toddler when he try things, especially praise persistence and hard work. Don’t just praise the end result. Trying hard is really what matters.

Pretend

If you want to avoid passing on some of your own phobias or worries, try to be brave for your toddler. Children look to their parents to guide how they should feel or behave in certain situations and will copy their parents’ behaviour. Even if you are not keen on snakes or spiders, try to be as calm and reassuring as you can for your child so that he doesn’t learn to respond with fear and anxiety too.

Personality

All children are different, some fearless and some cautious. This is partly down to their inborn personality. All parents will get to know their own child and be able to gauge their comfort zone around certain things. Try to be reassuring and encouraging but avoid forcing your toddler to do things that he finds very frightening. Forcing your toddler could result in him becoming more withdrawn and feeling less in control. So respect his personality and take things gently.

Performance

Try not to worry about your ‘performance’ as a parent. Most parents feel under pressure to be seen to parent in a certain way in public. Try to focus on the real relationship with your child and deal with situations in the way you know works.

If you feel that anxiety is taking over your life you should speak to your doctor. You can visit Mind to find out more about anxiety and how to help yourself.

Social Referencing and Risk

Famous experiments pioneered by Joseph Campos at Berkeley, University of California over 40 years ago revealed the role of social referencing in infant development. Campos created a ‘Visual Cliff’, which was a laboratory environment on a safe plane of glass with a chequered floor with an unreachable cliff below the glass floor. Toddlers and babies were placed on the glass plane and had the illusion that there was a big drop in the middle of the room.

The Visual Cliff demonstrated that babies are not born with an instinctive fear of falling from a height. However, they also found that older toddlers that were afraid of the drop could sometimes cross the drop if their mothers smiled and encouraged them to cross towards them. Conversely, if mothers showed a fearful face their toddlers were significantly less likely to cross the drop. They were swayed by the emotional communication and facial expressions of someone they trusted implicitly – their mum. This phenomenon was called ‘social referencing’.

Your toddler is very bad at assessing risk in the home and out and about. Luckily toddlers have evolved this social referencing behaviour to help decide whether something is dangerous, based on their care-givers facial expression. This means that your facial expressions, gestures and words are important in helping your toddler to develop risk assessment skills. Make sure that you don’t ‘cry wolf’ and endlessly communicate fear about the littlest thing. Instead, get used to getting your toddler’s attention when he is playing at a distance from you and communicating the risk level to them with your words, gestures and facial expressions. This might mean encouraging your toddler with a big smile and a thumbs up when they approach something safe – in contrast with important ‘danger’ signals when he is taking a dangerous risk. Your fear face will come naturally but you will need to anticipate the risk he faces and intervene before he takes the risk.

Impulsive behaviour and risk

YouTube is full of videos of parents going into the bathroom (who is covered in shaving foam, sun cream or diaper cream) and asking them if they played with the contraband item. A toddler’s first step in (admittedly hopeless) deception is to deny any wrongdoing even when the evidence is written or usually plastered all over their face!

Complete silence, calm and quiet is frequently associated with your toddler utterly engrossed in an impulsive behaviour that often means mess and sometimes means danger. So as you inwardly cheer that your toddler is very quiet – check things out immediately. Hopefully, it will just be a silly or messy game but sometimes his impulsivity and lack of judgement can lead to dangerous games. (A friend of mine checked on her quiet toddler to discover she had pulled a chair to an open window and was standing on the windowsill looking out. Thankfully she was calmly able to lift down her toddler and the next day install window locks throughout the house – but these near misses haunt many parents.)

Note
Top Tip: If you struggle with letting your toddler take acceptable risks, it can help to let your partner or e.g., intrepid sister come along to the park with you. Let them take control of the playing so you get to see your toddler supported but trying some new things that are riskier than you normally allow. I learned this inadvertently with my youngest daughter. Her best friend’s mum whizzed them around on a piece of equipment that required them to hang on tight. She would spin it as high as possible. My heart was in my mouth, my daughter was able to hang on easily, she loved it and I learned to increase the risks that my ‘baby’ could take.
How to cope with a bolter

Many toddlers go through a quite frightening stage of bolting. This is usually when they are first learning to run and they are like wind-up toys when you put them down. Toddlers in our family have run into ponds, and into crowds in shopping centres. These are potentially life-threatening situations. Supervision during this stage has to remain high. Sadly you have to accept that you can never drop your guard when your toddler is going through a bolting phase.

Big open spaces

Your toddler is too little to be sensible, so one good way to prevent bolting leading to a bad accident is to take him to really big open spaces. When my toddlers were going through bolting phases we chose huge outside spaces, such as a beach or common, and on wet days I would let them run off steam in our local shopping centre just as it opened before there were many shoppers around. Another great boon for parents today are the well designed soft play centres that allow intrepid toddlers to run off their energy and explore, climb and bolt to their heart’s content.

All my toddlers also had a small ‘doll’ pram to push with a teddy in as this made them easier to spot and hear (for both me and other adults) as they toddled at high speed through the thankfully pedestrianised centre of Cambridge.

I also recommend taking your toddler along to the public tennis courts when they are empty or play parks with fences, so that you can relax and let him run off steam.

Road safety and risk taking

Toddlers often go through a phase of refusing to hold hands, which can be potentially fatal on busy roads. In this case, you have to be firm and say that he either holds your hand or he has to sit in the pram or be carried until you are away from the busy road. However, I hate to see toddlers cooped up in a buggy for an entire shopping trip. It is usually possible to give them the opportunity to run off some steam somewhere during the journey.

I have had some success with backpacks that have a little lead on them which lets you walk with your toddler without constant hand holding. Reins such as this can also prevent some bad falls, but in general, I only used them on busy roads.

The importance of encouraging controlled risks

Balancing risks and safety is an art that takes constant refinement. Sometimes you will reflect that you erred too much towards caution and sometimes (usually after a near miss) you will realise that your toddler could have been hurt. However, toddlers are not little adults and they do need your guidance to help them.

I was always a pretty relaxed dad until I had the twins and my nerves just couldn’t take them both bolting in opposite directions. At the park, I’d push Rebecca in the swing and let Jessica toddle around and then swap them over, that way I could dash after one of them and the other one couldn’t bolt too. We got them those backpacks with little leads but it was a bit of a battle but I was really firm when we were near roads, either sit in the pram or have your backpack on.
Real dad story. Mark, dad to twins Rebecca and Jessica, both 28 months.
References and future reading

Turner, Beidel, Roberson-Nay & Tervo (2003) ‘Parenting behaviors in parents with anxiety disorders.’ Behaviour Research and Therapy Volume 41, Issue 5, May 2003, Pages 541–554

Campos, Sorce, Emde & Klinnert (1985) ‘Maternal Emotional Signaling: Its Effect on the Visual Cliff Behavior of 1-Year-Olds’ Developmental Psychology. Vol. 21. No. I, 195-200

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DISCLAIMER
This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Essential Parent has used all reasonable care in compiling the information from leading experts and institutions but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details click here.