What's a good way to deter "worst case" questions? My son loves to pipe up with oddball rebuttals. Some recent examples...

me: We'll be getting to Grandma's in about five minutes, yay!
son: What if the car blows up?

On a field trip:

air force pilot: Our parachutes are designed with inflatable straps, so if I land in the water I won't drown!
son: What if a shark attacks you?

While cooking dinner:

me: Please set the table, food will be ready soon.
son: What if the stove catches fire and the house burns down?

Pretty much every event, whether mundane everyday events or cool things like learning about parachutes (he loved that field trip, which is what really confused me when he piped up with that borderline-rude question), is met with some sort of catastrophe theory. It's difficult to carry on a normal conversation sometimes, and while I often manage to calmly point out the low risk of random house fires and car explosions, I also find it frustrating and don't always respond politely.

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    Aren't you tempted to turn it into a game? "And then a shark bit him", "and then a submarine shot the shark so thebshark let him go", "and then the submarine ran him over". Or you could just try asking him what would happen. "What if the house burns down?" "Wow! What would happen then?"
    – DanBeale
    Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 16:43
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    Get him the first book on "A Series of Unfortunate Events" by Lemony Snicket. He'll love it, it plays on such ideas, and plays with language in a way many kids love.
    – Marc
    Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 16:48
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    Is he genuinely worried about life-threatening events, or is he taking the mickey?
    – A E
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 7:40
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    @AE I am honestly not entirely sure. I think most of it is the latter, his way of rebutting an authority's assertion that things are normal, but with a bit of the former (e.g. "I am concerned about disaster, why aren't YOU")
    – Acire
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 13:12
  • @Erica, that's interesting. I've had some of the same from our 6-year-old (also high-maintenance).
    – A E
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 13:14

2 Answers 2


Personally, I find this indicative of a great imagination. I may be totally wrong here, but here goes.

I think that your 7 year old son may have come to realize that life in some capacity is finite, that existence can be tenuous, and that what we have can be "taken from us" at any time. This is called "existential anxiety", and everybody goes through it. A lot of people deal with it by repressing it (not always the best way to deal with fear) but some can't (fear of flying, elevators, other phobias). This may also be a kind of "catastrophizing" (although most studies of pediatric catastrophizing have been in relation to how children experience pain).

Does he happen to be gifted or an emotionally intense child? This tends to happen more in this group.

You're not describing anything worrisome; more commonly it's puzzling or concerning to the parent.

If he is experiencing some existential anxiety, I would do what you're already doing (analyzing risk). I wouldn't only do it verbally, though. I would definitely encourage observation. For example, with his "What if the stove catches fire and the house burns down?", I would walk him over to a window, and (kindly; he might be genuinely worried and wants to be heard) ask him to identify all the burning houses he sees (hopefully he can see a lot of houses). When he answers "none", ask him why that is. If he wonders if the car will blow up, ask him to count all the burning cars he sees from now until he reaches grandma's house. Give him assignments, maybe even as a way of warding off exasperation.

Another approach (this is particularly important in catastrophic thinking) is to introduce intermediate steps. He jumps to the extreme anyway, so introduce real possibilities. A flat tire or running out of gas is a lot more common than an exploding car. Floating in cold water alone for an hour or two is a possibility if the pilot has to eject. Being stung by a jellyfish is a more likely possibility. Ask him what sharks usually eat. Let him know that sharks actually prefer fish; if a shark bites a human, they typically bite, then let go after realizing they’re not eating sea animals. Lots of things can go wrong and interrupt making dinner; you might experience a power outage, or the stove might break down. You might spill the food accidentally. What will happen if this occurs? Sandwiches or cereal for supper!

If you're concerned about this, maybe you can minimize his exposure to violent scenes on TV or in movies. Pick some books for him where unexpected things happen and the protagonist overcomes the obstacles.

If this persists, or he has trouble sleeping or other signs of anxiety or stress, it's a good idea to talk to his doctor.

What is Catastrophizing? - Cognitive Distortions
a humor based website on catastrophizing

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    He's extremely intense. Thank you for the links and strategies; it's great information for me to go forward with :)
    – Acire
    Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 12:46

I would laugh.

Obviously, none of those things are going to happen. It's possible that he's expressing a real concern, but you know that the probability of those occurrences are so low as to be non-existent. Laughing at this concern - or smiling or showing humor in other ways - will show him that he doesn't need to be concerned that terrible things will happen, because you're not worried at all. Fear and humor aren't very compatible.

However, it's more likely that he's not really worried about these things, and just saying them because he can. Maybe he wants attention, and in that case any kind of response will fulfill that need. (Operating under the principle that giving kids attention is generally good, especially if they're not behaving badly.)

Maybe he's exercising his imagination, which is generally considered good. I'd tell him that the thing he mentioned wasn't going to happen. If he persists in asking "But what if it does?" then you can feel free to make up an emergency shark-escape-route plan of action. Play along with him in his game of imagination. Maybe this will even help him begin to develop real-life skills, such as learning to stay calm in crisis situations, or interest him in learning more about sharks.

If he's doing it to avoid chores, like in the table example, then it might be a problem. Perhaps in that case you could smile and assure him that it won't happen, but that he can come up with a fire escape route after dinner if he's interested. If he pursues his what-if scenarios to the point where he is not doing what you've asked him to do, then it's simply a delay tactic to avoid the chore. How to handle those, I think, is best addressed in a different answer, or perhaps it is already addressed in a different question here.

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    +1 - Great answer, especially the escape routes/emergency shark plans. I don't know that I would be able to suppress a smile or maybe a soft chuckle, but I would try not to laugh. If he's a sensitive child, this might be painful to him. Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 7:16
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    I like the approach of talking through responses to the dramatic catastrophes he proposes -- encourage him to answer the "what if" and thereby both use his imagination and (at least a little) be prepared.
    – Acire
    Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 12:49
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    "Well OBVIOUSLY I would shoot it with my emergency shark rocket. What a ridiculous question. NEXT!" Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 22:25

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