SCIENCE / MEDICINE : Parents Worry, Study Shows, but Too Often About the Wrong Things : Pediatrics: Concerns over which they have no control dominate those that could be acted upon.


“Don’t worry,” might be the most common advice pediatricians dish out to parents struggling to raise baby.

But according to a new study, parents do worry--about the wrong things.

Mothers, for instance, worry more about whether their children will be kidnaped by a stranger than whether their children’s school performances are satisfactory.

They worry disproportionately more about sudden infant death syndrome, a rare phenomenon in which an infant stops breathing for unexplainable reasons. And they do relatively little worrying about whether their children are watching too much television.


“Mothers worry more about immediate events over which they have little realistic control and have less concern in areas in which parents can have influence,” concluded the researchers who reported their findings at a meeting of pediatricians earlier this month in Anaheim.

Sensing that parental worries were out of line with reality, pediatricians from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, R.I., polled 400 mothers about their fears regarding their children.

Almost three-quarters of the mothers expressed fear that their children would be kidnaped by a stranger, although the chances of that happening are 1.5 in 1 million, said Dr. Daniel Broughton, associate professor of pediatrics at the Mayo Clinic. Half of the mothers were very concerned that their children would get cancer. But cancer-related deaths in children under age 15 occur in three of every 100,000 people.

Mothers worried more about homicide (41% of the mothers surveyed) and sexual abuse (55%) than about drugs, depression, too much TV, poor school performance, sexual promiscuity or delinquency, the study found.

“Parents will often be scared to death of things that are very uncommon,” Broughton said. “They’re not as worried about some things that are more likely to happen to their children.

“We don’t want them to stop worrying. But we want to identify the things parents are worrying about that are very uncommon and over which they have no control.”

Broughton said the study is not intended to make parents look foolish, only to help them realize that worrying is often a waste of time.

“We’re not making light of it,” he said. “It’s not that parents are frightened about frivolous things. But parents shouldn’t be spending a great deal of time being scared to death about them.”

The study showed that parents also worry excessively about health-care issues that rarely lead to serious problems. The mothers surveyed said some of their greatest health concerns were over ear infections (64% of those surveyed), reaction to immunizations (56%) and food allergies and other dietary concerns (64%).

It is highly unlikely that any of those things would present a serious problem for children, Broughton said.

Parents’ fears can sometimes lead to inappropriate care of the child, he said.

For example, a television show in Minnesota chronicling serious side effects to the childhood DPT vaccine resulted in many parents refusing to have their children immunized, Broughton said. Cases of pertussis--which the vaccine prevents--are on the rise in the region, he said.

“That’s where parental fears posed a real, serious health threat to children,” he said. “With illnesses, it’s important for parents to know at what point to call the doctor and when to bring the child in. Some parents make needless visits to the doctor over worry.”

Parents can sometimes unwittingly transfer their fears to their children, Broughton said, such as parents’ fears that their child will be abducted by a stranger.

“Teaching children how to respond to bad situations is important. But (fearing abduction by a stranger) is teaching children to be afraid when they needn’t be afraid. They should be cautious, yes; afraid, no,” he said.

The survey also found that parents worry about realistic matters such as their parenting ability and how to save for college costs. Pediatricians should help alleviate parents’ worries by being supportive and encouraging.

“Parents can get a realistic grasp on what level they should be concerned by talking to their pediatrician,” Broughton said.

The researchers will next study whether parents are not worrying about things they should be worrying about.

“We want to find out if parents are unduly not worried,” Broughton said. “That’s harder for us to say. But it’s a valuable study to do because that would be good information for pediatricians to have.”