Abduction anxiety

July 26, 2002|By Gordon Livingston

WE ARE, in important ways, defined by what we fear.

The subject of child abduction has been much in the news, and the reaction to the much-publicized kidnappings of three little girls over the last six months has shown how afraid we are of the wrong things.

Even though two of these children were taken from their homes (one apparently by a neighbor) and the third while playing in her yard, we are inundated with irrelevant suggestions from "experts" about "how to protect your kids." Common-sense advice such as warning children not to go off with strangers shades into absurd suggestions involving family code words and, finally, to bizarre calls for implanting LoJack car tracking devices in children's bodies. (Try that one on your teen-ager.)

What is the reality of the threat? Of the approximately 50 million school-age children in this country, 200 to 300 a year are abducted by strangers. Of these, about 50 are murdered. To put this one-in-a million statistic in perspective, 3,400 children are killed each year in motor vehicle accidents and 5,000 die (more than one every two hours) by firearms.

So what we have with all this hysteria about stranger abduction is a variation on the "shark scare" of last summer. An extremely unlikely but grotesquely horrible event is given so much media attention that people overestimate the real danger and behave accordingly.

While it is true that people with serious anxiety disorders appear, in many cases, to have a biological predisposition to these conditions, it is also true that anxiety can be contagious. Children growing up in families in which one or both parents exhibit a high level of apprehension are often vulnerable themselves to irrational fears. The number of adults who are afraid of flying, enclosed spaces, crossing bridges, even driving, is amazingly high. Often, just beneath the surface of an apparent phobia, lies an exaggerated sense of the world as a dangerous place.

Once when I was interviewing the parents of an anxious teen-ager, I inquired if anyone else in the family suffered from irrational fears. The mother replied, "No. We just take prudent precautions, like not taking a shower during a thunderstorm." When I asked if she had ever heard or read of anyone being electrocuted by lightning while in the shower, she replied, "No, but it could happen."

This is the attitude that supports lotteries. Also, those who fret about highly unlikely events often transmit this anxiety across the generations.

In a risky world, it is important that we learn and convey to our children an informed assessment of the perils we face. If we can persuade them to fasten their seatbelts and wear bike helmets and caution them not to smoke, drink excessively, play with guns or drive recklessly, we will have armored them against the primary dangers to their physical welfare.

If we really want to be good parents, we might include a lesson or two on how to recognize and avoid people who will break their hearts.

Gordon Livingston is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbia.

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