Study examines how parents can teach their children to be safer

March 20, 2014
Parents, do you cringe when you see your child in a precarious position? University of Iowa researchers, in a new study, learned how children rate hazards and show how mothers can better explain dangerous situations to children. Credit: Tim Schoon, University of Iowa

As parents, we've all been there: Watching our children teeter on a chair, leap from the sofa, or careen about the playground, fearing the worst. And, we all wonder, how can we teach them to be safer?

Such was the goal of a team of researchers at the University of Iowa, who analyzed in a new study how children take stock of various real-life scenarios, and how mothers can help them assess potential hazards. Their conclusions: Children and mothers regularly don't see eye-to-eye on situational dangers. Because of that, it's critical that mothers explain why a situation is dangerous, beyond simply administering a verbal slap on the wrist.

"One of the biggest worries for any parent is keeping their safe from injury," explains Jodie Plumert, UI psychology professor and co-author on the study, published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology. "It's pretty simple when the child is young, because parents directly supervise him (or her). But what about when the child gets older, becomes more independent and goes out on his own? That's when the responsibility for staying safe transfers from the parent to the child. And that means the child has to be able to assess the danger of situations. We think parent-child conversations are the bridge to doing that."

Of course, children can learn to be more careful by simply trying stuff. But Plumert's team wanted to know whether parents could pre-empt that, and, if so, how. To find out, the researchers showed 63 mothers and their 8- and 10-year-olds photos of other children engaged in various activities. Some – such as a photo of a child swinging a hand-held ax to chop wood or striking a match with a canister of lighter fluid nearby – screamed danger; others – such as riding a skateboard in the driveway or climbing on a countertop – appeared more benign. Separately, the mother and child rated the danger of each scenario on a four-point scale, from very safe to very unsafe. Children also were asked to rate how scared they'd be to perform the activity, also on a four-point scale.

The researchers then brought the mother and child together and asked them to agree on a "safety" rating for each scenario. In about a third of the cases, the mother and child rated the danger of the scenario differently, the researchers found. Despite the initial disagreement, the team also found that mothers were able to bring the child around to their way of thinking 80 percent of the time. In other words, the mother, in most cases, "encouraged their child to actively participate in independently thinking about the safety of the activities and also guided the child to their own way of thinking about the safety of the activities in cases of disagreement," the researchers write.

The video will load shortly
A mother and child discuss whether a scenario is dangerous, for a new study by the University of Iowa examining how parents can keep their children safe. Credit: Courtesy of Plumert lab, University of Iowa

So, how did they do that? That's where talking became important, Plumert notes. But not just any kind of talk, she adds.

"Saying to your child, 'Don't do that' or 'Stop' or 'Be careful' doesn't really work," Plumert says. "I mean, it's okay to say that, but the next step is to say why not. You shouldn't assume that your child knows why not, even if it seems obvious to you."

The video will load shortly
University of Iowa psychology professor Jodie Plumert discusses her study how parents can help keep their children safe. Credit: Ben Hill, University of Iowa

Mothers used one tactic especially effectively: They pointed out the dangerous elements in the situation, and explained how those current dangers could cause the child to get hurt. The researchers were initially surprised that focused more on the present features rather than pointing out potential outcomes, but think it's because parents use the present – the danger – to help the child understand the potential outcome – getting injured.

Still, there are some children who are prone to injury, no matter what. These are the risk-takers, and the researchers learned that these children are more likely to view a situation as less dangerous than their peers.

"It's like these kids discount the danger in the situations," says Elizabeth O'Neal, a third-year graduate student in psychology and corresponding author on the paper. "I think, for them, there's always this competition between being cautious and having fun."

These likely need more parental explanation to counteract their hell-bent-for-leather inclinations, the researchers say.

"In terms of intervention, the mother-child conversation might be especially important for these risk-takers than with the cautious kids," Plumert notes.

O'Neal and Plumert are the paper's sole authors. There was no outside funding for the research.

Explore further: Lack of sleep, stress describe a mother's experience after child's ALL treatment

Related Stories

Lack of sleep, stress describe a mother's experience after child's ALL treatment

March 11, 2014
Many months after their child's diagnosis and treatment, 46 percent of mothers exhibited symptoms of clinical anxiety and 26 percent of mothers showed depressive symptoms.

No maternity leave for women using surrogates: EU top court

March 18, 2014
Women who use surrogate mothers to have a child do not have a legal right to maternity leave when the baby is born, the European Court of Justice ruled on Tuesday.

Use of spanking exacerbates aggressive child behavior

December 10, 2013
A mother's affection after she spanks her child does little to diminish the negative impact of the act, a new University of Michigan study finds.

Mothers see their youngest as shorter than they are

December 16, 2013
Many parents say when their second child is born that their first child suddenly appears to have grown overnight. Now, researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on December 16 have an explanation: until ...

Spanking babies is surprisingly common

March 11, 2014
The same hands that parents use to lovingly feed, clothe and bathe their babies are also commonly used to spank their bundles of joy.

Recommended for you

Many kinds of happiness promote better health, study finds

July 21, 2017
A new study links the capacity to feel a variety of upbeat emotions to better health.

Study examines effects of stopping psychiatric medication

July 20, 2017
Despite numerous obstacles and severe withdrawal effects, long-term users of psychiatric drugs can stop taking them if they choose, and mental health care professionals could be more helpful to such individuals, according ...

Study finds gene variant increases risk for depression

July 20, 2017
A University of Central Florida study has found that a gene variant, thought to be carried by nearly 25 percent of the population, increases the odds of developing depression.

In making decisions, are you an ant or a grasshopper?

July 20, 2017
In one of Aesop's famous fables, we are introduced to the grasshopper and the ant, whose decisions about how to spend their time affect their lives and future. The jovial grasshopper has a blast all summer singing and playing, ...

Perceiving oneself as less physically active than peers is linked to a shorter lifespan

July 20, 2017
Would you say that you are physically more active, less active, or about equally active as other people your age?

Old antibiotic could form new depression treatment

July 19, 2017
An antibiotic used mostly to treat acne has been found to improve the quality of life for people with major depression, in a world-first clinical trial conducted at Deakin University.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.