Are You Using Fear in Parenting?

I do not like when fear is used as a form of control on children. Real life is scary enough, so to fill our children’s heads with stories of boogie men and bad guys seems cruel and unnecessary. Yet, as parents there is this fine line that is hard to balance. We want to protect our children and keep them safe from the many dangers that exist, but we don’t want our children to grow-up believing that there is more bad than good in the world (at least I don’t).

I swore I would never use fear as a parenting tactic. I grew up in a time when children were taught to fear all strangers and to constantly look over their shoulders when walking down the street. I remember believing and/or fearing that I would be kidnapped or raped every time I walked anywhere alone. As a child and well into my teens I remember feeling perpetually scared of something. And even now as an adult I grip my keys and race to my car if I am walking alone after dark – regardless of the neighborhood.

I recognize that being fearful is part of my personality and I am not trying to place all the blame on my upbringing. I am the first to admit that I sleep with a night-light, I will not ride roller coasters, and if I ever “jump” out of an airplane please know I was pushed because I would never willingly make this choice.

I do not want my children to share my fears. Nor do I not want to lean on fear as my only way to parent my children. Yet, despite my best intentions I have caught myself using fear in my parenting. I cringe every time I catch myself, but truth be told I do not think it can be avoided completely. And sometimes desperation makes you rely on the only thing you know.

When my kids first hid from me in the middle of a store my heart started racing and I called out to them in a high-pitched shaky voice. In my head all my childhood “stranger danger” fears leaped to the surface and moments before losing it completely I heard the muffled laughs. I grabbed my children, hugged them and then looked them in the face and told them with the sternest voice I could muster to never do that again because a stranger might take them. Their eyes opened wide and I could see the seed planted. They didn’t say anything in that moment, but later on before bed the questions started.

“Why would someone take us? How do you know there are bad guys?”

I hated myself for planting that seed. For ruining their innocence. For using fear simply because I was fearful.

I did my best to answer their questions honestly. I explained that I was scared. That I thought they were lost. That there are people out there who do terrible things and my job is to keep them safe, but that they do not have to worry. I told them that there are more good people than bad, but that children have to be careful and stay close to their parents just in case.

I know I could have handled that situation better. I know I could have chosen better words, but this is the fine line I am talking about. The line I struggle with at times.

I will never tell my children, as I was once told by a distant relative who was babysitting me, that the boogie man will take them away if they misbehave. But, I have to teach them to be vigilant because there are real dangers out there. So, I struggle with what is right and I struggle because I do not like seeing those seeds of fear grow.

So what do you say to your children? Has your child ever opened the front door and stepped outside without asking? Has your child ever answered a knock at the door before you were even downstairs? Has your child ever run toward a strange dog? Has your child ever engaged in a conversation with a stranger? How about running away from you in a public place or across a street?

These are the situation when we as parents are tested. When we have to ask: Is it really a terrible thing if our instinct to protect our children is to teach fear? Is some fear healthy? How much is too much? Are you using fear in parenting and is it ever okay?

Please tell me what you think by leaving a comment below. I believe this is a conversation we should have as parents.

You can also join the discussion on the Tiny Steps Mommy Facebook page.


Nicole Dash is a writer, blogger and business owner who lives in the suburbs outside Washington, DC with her husband and four children. She started her career as a journalist and copy editor. She also managed public relations and corporate communications for a national franchise company, but in 2006 started a child care business. In 2012, she launched Tiny Steps Mommy, a lifestyle and parenting blog that quickly gained a following and connected her to an expansive group of women-owned businesses. In 2013, she started a digital marketing consulting business that focused on growing community in an authentic way. Through those connections she was inspired to open Play, Work or Dash, a coworking space that also offers onsite childcare up to three hours per day. It is where like-minded professionals pursue their business goals with the extra level of support parents desire; a place where you "bring your kids to work." She is an active member of the Washington, DC blogger community. She has been published on The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, Mamalode and Pop Sugar.




  1. Blanca Alvarado says:

    I think those are all legitimate fears or concerns. Explaining the harsh realities of life to your children is also part of parenting. We don’t want our children kidnapped or molested, so we need to gently warn them that these things do occur and how important it is for them to follow some safety rules.

  2. Allison F. says:

    I think some fear is healthy. Kids love to test the limits, and in your example, your reaction showed the right amount of seriousness so that I don’t think they will ever try hiding in a store again. It’s okay to let kids be kids, but you did a great job at being truthful about the reality that dangers DO exist. We also can’t sugar coat everything. As long as you are not exaggerating or truly projecting your own fears onto your kids, I think some fear in parenting is necessary. After all, our job as parents is to prepare them to take on the world. Raising them to be naive isn’t doing them a favor either.

  3. What an important conversation! Helping young children learn to navigate feelings in productive ways is a critical part of healthy development. Not enough “appropriate” fear can create its own problems for children. At what point do children learn to be aware of their surroundings? When should children begin to learn to trust their “gut” about safe people and places?

    At AcornDreams, we believe in teaching children that feelings are here to help us. Without excessive drama, and certainly without using false “boogie man” stories as discipline strategies, children NEED to hear about some of life’s scary realities, preferably from people who adore them and keep them safe. When shared calmly, children benefit learning age-appropriate, bite-sized chunks of information. Not everyone is a safe person. Some places are dangerous. It’s important to stay close to mom. Etc. Who better to help children begin to understand this complicated world than the people who love children the most?

    Kudos for introducing this important topic!

  4. It is a tough discussion. Most adults — including me — have trouble accurately understanding the concept of “risk” in their lives. We worry endlessly about things that statistically are extremely unlikely to happen to us (shark attacks, our kid being snatched out of front yard) and don’t worry enough about things that are proportionately much more likelier risks (our diets, our traffic habits). So much of this is almost a brain-based discussion. Some things trigger primitive, instinctual parts of our brains. LIke “monsters” or “killers” — whether they’re terrorists or shooters in schools. It’s important to communicate to kids in a rational, calm way without communicating your own anxieties. In some ways, maybe how you say something to your kid — in a reassuring way or an anxious way — is more important than exactly how you explain a particular danger.

  5. Mercedes Dash says:

    Your spouse can tell you about the time his younger brother Teja hid in a clothing display at Hechts in Tysons Corner while we had all the boys and nephews ‘back to school’ shopping. They locked the doors, security was dispatched throughout. All of a sudden he pops out and says “ta dah!” in an innocent and playful voice. At first, I grabbed him and held him and we cried…but once I was calm, I gave him the one and only spanking in his life. The conversation about good people/bad people followed…he never ever walked away from us again. It is an important discussion to be had with your children-

  6. I can so relate to how you feel. I have 4 kids, and as a military wife, I am often a “single parent”. I have used so many tactics I never thought I would! I read somewhere that kids need to know their parents are not perfect, and to see them acknowledge their mistakes. Whenever I do/say anything that I feel is overboard, I always tell my kids I was wrong and why. I explain to them that I will try to do better. In cases where I have made them afraid, we often talk about things we can control and things we can’t. (Can’t control hurricanes, can control running into the street.) If they can’t control something, I tell them to let me worry about it.