My 4 year old girl has no awareness of danger

climbing-treeQ. My four-year-old daughter has no sense of danger. I can deal with it myself, but I don’t feel comfortable leaving her with other adults in case something happens to her. I am going back to work in September, which is around the time that my daughter starts school. I don’t know how I will bring myself to have someone else collecting her each day.

She recently tried to get into a pink car we saw waiting at traffic lights. My husband and I are used to it and have learned to deal with it, but I am not sure how I can warn another adult. I have tried to tell her about bad people who might take her away from Mummy and Daddy if she doesn’t do what we ask of her, but this resulted in weeks of nightmares. How can I teach her what is safe and not safe without frightening her?

A. Many toddlers and preschoolers display little fear of danger and need constant supervision from their parents. There are lots of different reasons for this.

Sometimes, it is due to the child being impulsive, likely to take risks and to act without thinking. Or it could be that the child doesn’t have the normal social/separation anxiety that most preschoolers have, which makes them stay close to their parents especially in new situations.

Occasionally, it is in the context of the child having specific developmental problems such as Attention Deficit Disorder or having some autistic traits. (If your daughter displays other developmental problems that make you worried about this, do contact your GP or public health nurse about seeking an assessment.)

Most frequently, having no fear of danger is an immaturity that children grow out of as they become more verbal and able to listen to your rules and explanations.

You are right to be vigilant and to supervise her well, which is the main strategy to keep her safe until she is more able to understand dangers and to keep rules. You can also take steps to teach her how to be safe.

You are right to be cautious about overusing explicit descriptions of the dangers as this can lead her to becoming overanxious or even having nightmares as you have discovered.

You can counterbalance this by using clear rules and positive explanations. Rather than only explaining the dangers of her actions, the key is to make sure she understands how you want her to behave, and the positive benefits of this.

For example, if you are worried about her running off when out, you can explain to her the rule of “Holding Mum’s hand when on the road”. Or if she is likely to not heed your warnings you can focus on the rule of “Listening when Dad calls her”.

To help her learn positively, it is important to give her lots of praise and attention when she keeps any of your rules.

It is also important to tackle the specific social situations where you might be worried about her lack of safety and to positively teach her how to behave. Using visual teaching aids such as picture charts can really help this process.

For example, supposing you want to teach her how to cross the road safely, you could break this task into the component steps – (waiting at the side of the road, looking both ways, holding Mum’s hand and walking safely across the road) and then do up a picture for each of these to explain this to her.

Then you can take her on the road and practise going through the steps, making sure to give her praise as she completes them – “Good girl, you are holding Mum’s hand” or “Well done, you looked both ways”.

You can also boost her motivation by giving her a star on the chart or small treat for each step she completes correctly. Helping a child to learn rules about safety and to integrate an appropriate sense of danger does take time and patience.

The second part of your question is about dealing with the challenges of going back to work and trusting your child’s care in the hands of someone else. For most parents, this is a big step that provokes a lot of anxiety. You have this coming at a particularly significant and emotional event, notably your daughter starting school.

Many parents worry about this, about whether they are ready for the big step and as to whether you will be able to cope without them. You are not alone in having these fears, which must be further heightened by your daughter’s lack of an awareness of danger.

However, there is a lot you can do to deal with things. First of all, do spend quite a bit of time finding a childcare option that works for you. Identifying someone you trust, who appreciates your specific concerns and who understands your daughter’s specific needs will help you feel reassured.

Secondly, you might integrate the minder in gradually. For example, you or your husband might take some time off to do the initial school runs until you feel your daughter is settled and then you might introduce the minder to doing this (even doing it together the first time if that reassures you).

Certainly, you should take time to explain to your minder all about your daughter’s needs and what works for her and how you currently successfully manage her lack of awareness of danger.

To help your daughter, you could do up a picture book, similar to the one described above, describing the steps of going to school and being collected safely by her minder.

It also is a good idea to contact the school in advance of your daughter starting to discuss your concerns. Primary schools usually have very well worked-out routines of children being dropped off and collected that are safe and secure. You can find out about these in advance and prepare your daughter.

Do seek further help from a child mental health professional if you are concerned about other aspects of your daughter’s development.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, July 2011.  John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.