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4 Year Old Has No Fear of Strangers

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Dr. Laura,
My 4-year-old is EXTREMELY strong-willed/spirited and very very friendly with people. She is not afraid to take off running into a crowd and has no sense of fear. She will approach and hug perfect strangers and I am not sure the right way to go about teaching her about strangers and the danger of being out of my sight.

I can't allow her to go anywhere with her grandfather anymore because she runs off and won't come back to him when he calls her. I nearly had a heart attack today when she was outside with him while he was washing the car. I heard his panicked voice calling her over and over. She had run around the block, she says "to ecker-size momma" and we couldn't find her for at least 15 minutes!

She will stay with me when we go places, but she still pushes the limits. One time she got to the front door before we did and threw her arms around the comcast to give him a hug, and we don't have comcast! I am a vigilant parent, and I always have an eye on her, but when she's with other family members, she takes FULL advantage, and I don't know what to do to get it in her head on how to be safe.

Terrified Mother


Dear Terrified Mother -
I can see why this would drive you crazy. I would try a combination of three things:

1. Serious conversation about danger: cars, and yes, people. Most people are wonderful, but some people are hurting inside and therefore do bad things, including even hurting other people. She must already know that already, and if she doesn't, it is fine to learn it now. For that reason, she needs to always be with a trusted grown-up. That means NOT being out of their sight, no matter what.

2. Play, to get her laughing about this issue. Play chase games and hiding games in a safe place, where you lament that she has run off, to get her laughing. This will satisfy her need to do this, at least to some degree, and it will also help her to surface and giggle away any anxiety about this issue. If she is doing this because it gives her a wonderful sense of exhilaration and freedom, the chase games will give her that. (Don't catch her, obviously, unless that increases her laughter.)

3. Work on your own issues. When kids do stuff that they know upsets their parent, there is usually a reason in the relationship. So maybe the issue is about control -- is she getting enough control of her own life? Or maybe the issue is your own anxiety. For instance, it clearly upset you that she hugged the Comcast guy. But you were right there. She was not in any danger. So you may have been over-reacting. Kidnapping is in fact extremely rare and your daughter was probably not in danger even from running around the block (unless from a car pulling out of a driveway). Or if your daughter senses that running away gives her power, she may do it simply to experience that thrill of power. If you can just spend some time noticing your own fear, and reminding yourself that your daughter is not actually in danger most of the time -- I am betting that her behavior will change.

Good luck, and let us know how it goes!

Dr. Laura

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