Advice Needed: My Child is Scared to Go Outside Without Me

Here’s a question to crowdsource:

Dear ktbybyzsst
Free-Range Kids: My son makes a wonderful Free-Range Kid.  His older sister not so much.  In Grade 4 she still holds my hand walking to the school bus and is very upset that I have determined that they walk the last two blocks on their own.  Daily she begs me to walk all the way.

I know that she is capable and competent.  If she were to get locked out of the house, she is sufficiently resourceful to handle the situation.  But she almost never goes outside without me unless I essentially physically propel her out the door.  At which point she invariably picks a fight with her brother in the hope that I will be forced to come outside to intervene.

I want her to be more willing to let go of my coattails, but I also don’t want to force her to the point of harming her and being disrespectful to her needs.  Recently, with all the news about scary clowns (which my kids don’t get in my household, but kids talk and some of them clearly have more access to the nightly news than mine do) she keeps fretting that if she is outside alone some creepy clown is going to ‘get’ her.  She has a grandmother who is happy to feed into this (she once told my kids not to play in the public space behind our yard because bad people would steal them…)

So, what to do?  How do we encourage our not-so-Free-Range Kids to get out there?

Two ideas come to mind, one of which won’t work. That’s: Ask grandma to stop scaring the kids. Of course, grandma won’t, because she wants to keep her beloved grandkids safe and thinks what’s she’s doing helps. Which means you shouldn’t bother to ask. So nix that.

But the other idea is one you mentioned in passing: “If she were to get locked out of the house, she is sufficiently resourceful to handle the situation.” Not that you should deliberately lock her out. But if you’d like your daughter to discover for herself how competent she is, why not ask her help when you “desperately” need it? For instance, guests are coming for dinner and you don’t have any napkins! Ask her to please help you out and run to the store, if one is near. Or to please run to the neighbor’s and get some.

Kids, like the rest of us, love to feel needed. That desire will probably rise above the fear. And from what I’ve seen, once kids get a taste of being “adult,” and competent, it’s something they want more of. And on the flip side, once parents see how safe and competent their kids really, they are readier to loosen the reins.

That being said, it also doesn’t strike me as a big “issue” that your daughter doesn’t want to go outside on her own just yet. All in the fullness of time. – L.


Is there a way to make my daughter cherish independence? 




34 Responses to Advice Needed: My Child is Scared to Go Outside Without Me

  1. Kathea December 16, 2016 at 10:39 am #

    I don’t want to arm chair diagnose via the internet but this sounds like more than just childhood irrational fear. I would suggest that speaking with a therapist who specializes in anxiety in childhood might be a possible option. I was horribly afraid of strangers as a child. Not because of anything my parents did but just because of my own inner thoughts. I was convinced that everyone my mom talked to in line at the grocery store was an ax murderer. I didn’t like being somewhere without my parents beyond school. Although I did walk and ride the bus without issue. It was more public spaces that really bothered me. I was also painfully shy. Someone who understands how to guide a conversation with a child who has symptoms of an anxiety disorder might be able to get at the root of what is causing some of this. Not that she has an anxiety disorder but it’s an avenue to explore.

  2. BL December 16, 2016 at 10:58 am #

    “That being said, it also doesn’t strike me as a big “issue” that your daughter doesn’t want to go outside on her own just yet.”

    Really? By fourth grade?

    (shakes head, tries not to cry)

  3. AmyO December 16, 2016 at 10:59 am #

    I think it’s a matter of practice, practice, practice. My daughter is very self-sufficient at seven, but she was really scared to take the bus home. My husband meets her at the stop which is a block from our house, and she was scared he would forget and not be there.

    So we talked through every scenario we could think of, and made a plan for each one. Even silly ones like, what if there is a dinosaur driving the bus instead of a bus driver. And then we reviewed the plan every day until she took the bus home. Even now, I’ll once in a while ask her “what would you do if dad isn’t there?” or “what would you do if you got off at the wrong stop?” and she happily rattles off the answer. Now we’re practicing crossing the street on her own because, again, for whatever reason this is what she’s decided to be scared of. We’ve decided to have him start meeting her across the street, then down the street, then outside of our house, as she gets confident.

    My suggestion is to make plans for the things that scare her. Plan and practice what to do if she sees a clown outside. Then give her increments. Tell her to go out for five minutes and you’ll check on her. Then ten, then twenty, etc. I think information will work, instead of trying to downplay her fears. If she is scared of clowns, or bees, or strangers, or taxi cabs, then make a plan tailored to that fear.

  4. marie December 16, 2016 at 11:35 am #

    I’m not sure a therapist is needed but I know nothing about anxiety in kids. Maybe Kathea noticed something I missed.

    AmyO, I love love LOVE your comment. Great ideas. Instead of wondering what the heck the little girl is thinking, give her useful information to think about.

  5. Sarah December 16, 2016 at 12:12 pm #

    Maybe the child needs a long break from scaring grandma. This is not “helping” and can have long-term consequences.

    Does he go out with other kids and their friends? maybe a play date of some sort. Being out with friends may be easier.

  6. Denise December 16, 2016 at 12:21 pm #

    Hmmm. Back in the mid-50’s when I was in 4th grade, I had been walking to school for two years. School was about 3/4 mile away. I was never a helicopter parent. Or grandparent. I find the stories on this blog mind-boggling.

  7. Mary December 16, 2016 at 12:25 pm #

    Once you teach, by example and in-context words, children what TO DO they are freer to be doing such things without your immediate presence. Still, many children like to be within the sight of a parent/guardian all of the time, and that is what many societies afford all of their children.

    An occupational therapist, studying a lot of neurological development, has some of the best parenting ideas I have ever heard about. A. Jean Ayers, SENSORY INTEGRATION AND THE CHILD. The American Psychological Association published this book in the mid-1900’s. Do they ever implement it? NOOOOOOOOO….

    Children under the age of about 10 years old need some intervention with the world and the people in it. Moms that stay around their children for these years don’t have so many fires to put out. If you can be around your child while the grandmother is being “realistic”, then you can counter, gently and with perspective more than with opposition, the information. Becoming capable in an imperfect world works better than becoming afraid of the world.

  8. Mary December 16, 2016 at 12:31 pm #

    Also, Barry Chaloner has held seminars about talking with difficult children. The main idea is to be a safe person to be around, and then to generalize a situation and let the child respond– over time, as s/he will Like, “Sometimes, an adult says scary things.” Or, “Sometimes a friend makes a child afraid.”

  9. Jessica December 16, 2016 at 12:52 pm #

    The comments that say “What is wrong with your kid? I was very independent at that age” are NOT helpful. Seriously, why would you get online just to reassure this mother that she’s clearly doing something terribly wrong? Or to bitch for the millionth time about “our society”?

    My son is only 5, and not quite as bad as the girl in question, but I do have this problem to a lesser degree. He is often afraid that “the police” will come arrest him or me if he’s out of my view. I’ve reassured him that it isn’t the case– “You’re 5 now, so you’re big!”– but he’s still nervous.

    I did like Lenore’s suggestion about having a REASON for her to go. Yesterday I successfully sent my son into the library alone using a similar tactic. He wanted me to go in with him, but I told him that I needed to stay in the car because I wasn’t as bundled up as he was. It did work.

  10. Jessica December 16, 2016 at 12:59 pm #

    I also like Lenore’s reassurance that this is probably not an issue. Kids are different. Isn’t the whole point of this site– kids mostly survive and thrive? Even the nervous kids, even the kids who barely leave the house. They’ll be fine. They don’t all have to be out in the forest all day in order to become normal, functional adults. Your daughter won’t be clinging to your apron when she’s 18, I promise! So I think you continue to encourage her, but also don’t stress about it too much. She sounds like she’s doing fine in the other areas of her life.

  11. Nicole December 16, 2016 at 1:20 pm #

    Do baby steps. Start small. Plays outside with you near by, outside with you on the front steps, outside with you in the house but by the door, you in the front room but with door open. Then you in the front room with the door closed. Then you in the house. Might be a lot of work but I find when kids have to do something for the first time if you break it down into smaller chunks and the kiddo gains confidence then they will accomplish the goal rather than the big goal of play outside.

    Additionally you could also do time- play outside for 2 mins and then increase the time.

  12. ATXmom December 16, 2016 at 1:27 pm #

    I have to agree with Kathea – I have dealt with kids and anxiety, and this young girl definitely seems anxious to me, beyond the scope of what you’d expect in a child that age. The threshold for seeking professional help is if the problem has gone on for at least 6 months. If it’s affecting her ability to enjoy daily life, I would definitely ask for help. Cognitive Behavior Therapy can be very effective in children, and helping her get coping skills now will only help as she gets older/hormones/etc.

  13. lollipoplover December 16, 2016 at 1:28 pm #

    I also don’t see this as an issue at all. Every child develops at different rates physically and emotionally. Not being as independent as other children may just be unique to this child.

    “My suggestion is to make plans for the things that scare her.”

    I second this. I think it can help a nervous child to play out the many “what ifs” they may encounter in their daily lives that make them worry. Asking them what they are afraid of…and address it without putting it down as silly.
    My oldest was the least independent of my kids, the biggest clinger, and naturally cautious. Now that he’s 15 and his friends are doing some reckless things, I am really grateful he’s cautious!

  14. Jenny Islander December 16, 2016 at 1:41 pm #

    I agree that this may be a case of anxiety unrelated to, or at least not directly caused by, environmental factors. It’s possible to have a genetic quirk that makes you extremely anxious. It’s like, we all have an instinctive alarm system that is supposed to keep us safe, but people with inborn anxiety experience the thing going off all the time. Because this is instinctive, that is, designed to work at a level deeper than conscious thought, willpower and pep talks won’t solve the problem. Professional help is needed to help the sufferer work around the issue and live a normal life.

  15. Beanie December 16, 2016 at 1:43 pm #

    Maybe having a friend to play with outside would help? She’d be distracted enough, having fun, that she could gradually get used to being outside without an adult. In addition to sending her to the store (boy I wish we lived within walking distance to a store!), send her to get a friend in the neighborhood. Surely somewhere nearby there is someone she could get together with–I had to go with my son to introduce him to the kid down the street, but after that first time, they were out together without any help from adults. Better yet, maybe the mom could contrive a way to get a neighborhood girl to knock on her door and invite her out to play. Then start mopping the floor so no one can come back inside for an hour. Harness the power of other kids!

  16. ChicagoDad December 16, 2016 at 1:56 pm #

    Hey there.

    Maybe there are some activities where she can enjoy some independence without the anxiety she gets from going outside without you. Some ideas: Drop your daughter off at the movies with a friend. Let your daughter and one her friends shop independently at the shopping center while you and your son shop elsewhere. Girl Scout camping trips, sleepovers, church retreats, and lock-ins are all old fashioned ways of fostering independence for kids this age. Once she grows more confident, then maybe going outside won’t be so anxiety causing.

    Do you have a sister or cousin who lives somewhere interesting? Maybe spending a week (spring break?) with a cool relative would boost her confidence and give her some perspective. If cool Aunt Mary can handle living in the big city, then playing outside with her brother should be a cinch.

    And then there is the direct approach. Give her tools to handle bad situations while playing ouside. Buy her a loud whistle on a bracelet, enroll her in a self defense or first aid class, introduce her to neighbors who can help in an emergency, and give her a spray can of “Clown Melter”

  17. shdd December 16, 2016 at 2:00 pm #

    I would also recommend baby steps. My daughter used to cling to me at school events. By 2nd grade most of her friends were happy without her parents. I told her I am going in the lunchroom (also her day care room) to be with my friends. Why do you go play with your friends? If you want to talk to me you know where I am. I didn’t see her for about an hour until she and her friends wanted a snack. She was right around the corner but for a long time she needed reminders about where I was and where she could come and get me.

  18. Christopher Byrne December 16, 2016 at 2:22 pm #

    I wonder if this is a fear-based issue or an attention issue. You don’t say the age difference between your son and daughter, but this sure is one way to make sure mom is paying attention to one child over the other. Older siblings are often highly aware of the attention a younger sib is getting, and this is potentially a strategy to get mom’s attention, one reinforced by grandma, unfortunately.

    What about making sure that there is plenty of mommy/daughter time, and helping the daughter to feel responsible for helping mom by helping to take care of younger brother? That may not be correct, but it might be worth considering, especially in the context of other sibling dynamics unknown from this letter.

  19. Michael Blackwood December 16, 2016 at 3:26 pm #

    I would speak to her teacher and school counselor. Bring them in and let them observe her for a while and listen to their recommendations. As a retired educator I will tell you that it is not unheard of but it is not normal. She needs to be, and should be, exploring her independent now – while she has parents at home and teachers at school to backstop her. This won’t go away naturally. Action of some sort is required but I think involving her school is the first step.

  20. Michael Blackwood December 16, 2016 at 3:26 pm #

    I would speak to her teacher and school counselor. Bring them in and let them observe her for a while and listen to their recommendations. As a retired educator I will tell you that it is not unheard of but it is not normal. She needs to be, and should be, exploring her independence now – while she has parents at home and teachers at school to backstop her. This won’t go away naturally. Action of some sort is required but I think involving her school is the first step.

  21. Cassie December 16, 2016 at 4:14 pm #

    I would say don’t force her to go the two blocks alone… Let her do it in her time. That way rather than spending the walk in fear (and tears) as you approach the place where you leave her, she can go confidently with you. She won’t hold your hand forever.

    Kids do have irrational fears (I was frightened of chooks as a 5yo, so my mum locked me in the chook pen — really not helpful. You know what has helped me not be afraid of chooks or lizards – having a 5yo of my own that isn’t afraid of them, I watch her and feel confident).

    As for grandma and clowns… I would say honest conversation with honest language “Grandma is a douche (at least in this instance)..”.

  22. EricS December 16, 2016 at 4:28 pm #

    I say be honest. Ask her why she’s so afraid. When she says everyone is telling her this and that, tell her they’re all lying. That THEY are scared themselves, so want others to be fear as well. Assure her that if she keeps being mindful, aware, and smart when she out and about, she will be just fine.

    There’s two lessons you are teaching her. 1. Not to believe everyone and what they say. Learn on your own. Question them, and if she has any doubts or questions, to ask you. Because you will always be honest with her. Give the example of her brother. That he’s not scared, and nothing has ever happened to him. 2. She learns to be independent. As well as gain confidence every day she walks on her own. She’ll eventually figure out what your telling her is more true than what others are. She gains more trust in YOU. So that whenever you guide her, she’s more accepting, and trusting.

    All children should learn street smarts. Street smarts isn’t something you learn in books and seminars. You learn it through using your head (common sense and reason), and experience. Just remember. Fear is instilled. And it can also be overcome.

  23. Betsy in Michigan December 16, 2016 at 5:45 pm #

    Childhood anxieties are apparently quite common. My now-15 year old had a year of therapy in 2nd grade (she started hitting herself) that has thankfully been long-lived (she’s hard-wired that way; it comes from my MIL, who never has had any therapy. Daughter is now a confident free-ranger). They did lots of talking about real versus imagined fears.

  24. KJ December 16, 2016 at 9:35 pm #

    What Jessica said. Every kid is different. If she needs more support than the typical 4th grader, then give it to her.
    Not all kids are alike. If she is continually growing and maturing, then she will mature fine at her own rate. And as the mother of teens, I promise you she will not always want to hold your hand. Of course, Grandma’s comments aren’t helping any!

  25. donald December 16, 2016 at 9:42 pm #

    When I fill up my car with gas, I’d give my 6 year old son the money. He’d then go and pay for it.

  26. James Pollock December 16, 2016 at 9:52 pm #

    Some kids just don’t like to be outside all that much… whether it’s because it’s too cold, too hot, too rainy, too full of spiders, or whatever (yes, even too many scary clowns).

    Rather than focusing on what your daughter is not (comfortable outside on her own), focus on what she is… (resourceful, apparently.) What can you do to build that up, without pushing her in ways she doesn’t like? “Forget” some item at the grocery store, and send her to go find it and get it while you wait in line. Send her to the counter at the fast-food place to get something… napkins, or an extra order of fries, or whatever.

    You can also build confidence by holding drills. OK, pretend there’s a fire in the kitchen. What do you do? (you ask your kids) and practice what the right answers are: look for pets, if applicable. stay low, get outside, to a specific meeting place… all the stuff people think is a good idea, but never get around to practicing.

    Mostly, though, accept that one of your kids just doesn’t enjoy being outside. Mine doesn’t either, and she was plenty resourceful, independent, and self-sufficient when required to be.

  27. sexhysteria December 17, 2016 at 3:13 am #

    Sometimes one hysterical adult succeeds in terrorizing a little girl about stranger danger, and then that child spreads the disease like an epidemic to other kids she comes in contact with. Try to find out who is carrying the contagion, and then quarantine the infected carrier until she recovers.

  28. lollipoplover December 17, 2016 at 10:57 am #

    “Recently, with all the news about scary clowns (which my kids don’t get in my household, but kids talk and some of them clearly have more access to the nightly news than mine do) she keeps fretting that if she is outside alone some creepy clown is going to ‘get’ her. She has a grandmother who is happy to feed into this (she once told my kids not to play in the public space behind our yard because bad people would steal them…)”

    This is such a teachable lesson for kids to learn about what our media reports and gets us scared about (and why do we listen to it?) There were so many children with irrational fears about the Clown Hoax of 2016 that even our school banned clown Halloween costumes because they would scare so many children. News stations loved the clown sightings, and social media became *news* for many, many people and they believe silly fake stories, unfortunately.

    There is a difference between fear and danger. There are real dangers to young kids these days. Suicide is the LEADING cause of death in middle school students. Not clown killings. More kids kill themselves from unhappiness than anything else…random accidents. There needs to be an honest discussion of fears, why we have them, where they come from, and the ones to listen to and the others we have to learn to filter out.

  29. Warren December 18, 2016 at 8:36 am #

    Get her a dog. Plenty of rescue dogs already somewhat trained. Works almost every time.

  30. donald December 18, 2016 at 4:03 pm #

    Anxiety is very difficult and can be incomprehensible to understand. This extract that of a story comes to mind.

    “People ask me all the time, What are you afraid of? I don’t know how to describe it. How can the explain that the air around you is scary?”

  31. Emily December 19, 2016 at 9:07 am #

    >>Get her a dog. Plenty of rescue dogs already somewhat trained. Works almost every time.<<

    Warren, I agree with a lot of things you say, and I'm definitely a "dog person" as well–I have a golden retriever, and I love him. However, I don't think that it's fair, to either the child or the animal, to adopt a rescue dog in order to address a child's mental health issue. A rescue dog is going to have issues of his or her own, and all dogs are pack animals, who will try to assume the position of "top dog" by going after the weakest member of the pack–in this case, a child with anxiety. Also, the presence of a dog isn't going to instantly make the child stop being afraid of going outside without an adult–there's going to be some initial resistance, and meanwhile, the dog will still have to be walked. So, I'm not saying don't get a dog; I'm just saying that I don't think the letter writer should make "get her a dog" the entirety of her plan to cure her daughter's fear of going outside alone. Get a dog AND talk about her fears, work up gradually to playing outside independently (time-wise, distance-wise, or both), even get her professional help if necessary, but the dog shouldn't be a cure-all.

  32. JulieH December 19, 2016 at 1:35 pm #

    I am in the “this probably isn’t an issue” camp. Different kids have different needs. My older daughter is a can’t-stop-her independent girl who liked to tackle things at a younger age. My younger daughter just…isn’t. It drove me nuts the things that scared and bothered her. Things were much better for her (and me) when I stopped trying to force my ideas of how she should feel about things upon her and just acknowledged them for what they were. THAT gave her the confidence to start stepping out. If she wanted/needed me to hold her hand, I did. I helped her put names to her feelings and let them be hers. It was about 5th grade age that she wanted to start venturing out on her own.

    Generally speaking, I don’t feel my daughter had some kind of emotional issue or anxiety issue that required an expert intervention. I could see, however, a mom seeking out advice of an expert (in person or by reading-I found “The Highly Sensitive Child” helpful) on how to reflect back to a child so that the child can feel their feelings are respected and heard IF the mom needs help in that kind of area.

    I had SOOOO many other parents try to tell me to just tell my daughter to get over it and to force her to do certain things over the years. That just plain didn’t work for her. Her timeline was her timeline.

  33. Qute December 21, 2016 at 11:08 am #

    Actually I would say something to grandma. Otherwise she will continue to undermine your attempts to normalize things for your daughter. Say them kindly and without judgement – over and over and over again.

    “Grandma, please don’t tell the children that someone will steal them if they play in the yard. That’s not true and it’s not helpful.” Explain to your daughter that grandma means well but her concerns in this case are not statistically relevant.

    And yes, as so many others have said, ask your daughter what about this or that scares her.
    “Why are you so anxious about walking the last two blocks without me? What do you think will happen?” and then plan appropriate responses to those reasons without minimizing her concerns.

    If need be then limit the amount of time that daughter & grandmother spend together.

  34. Kellie S December 28, 2016 at 8:24 pm #

    An irrational fear is much easier to tackle over when you know it is irrational. What IS she afraid of? And why? Talk to her without judging her. Once you really understand her fears you can help her face them, but you will never understand them if you simply dismiss them.

    Is it Aliens? Earthquakes? Fire? Being alone? Loosing you? Leaving YOU alone?
    Is it Killer clowns? Do some research ( and teach her how to fact check herself.
    Is it Stanger danger? Show her the statics on this website and then describe it in a way she can understand (1 white Lego in a bag of 100 isn’t even close).
    Give HER the power to find the truth and it may give her the confidence to walk out the door.

    Kids have imaginations and influences we can’t imagine and too often adults simply shrug away their fears rather than seeking first to understand. Dismissing their fears is as disrespectful to them as helicopter parenting, we are here to help them face their fears and succeed.