Q: I was wondering if you could write something about “stranger danger.” How do I talk to my kids about keeping themselves safe out in the world?
A: First of all, GREAT question. All parents wonder this, and even though there are about 1,000,000 books, articles, blog posts etc. on this topic, it can be very difficult to sort out a simple, effective approach that kids can understand and make use of.
Let’s start by clarifying the goal of talking to your kids about strangers, public places, and dangerous situations. If you are trying to ensure that they avoid all contact with danger or risk of any kind, you will almost definitely fall short of this and will make yourself crazy in the process. As a mama myself, I am intimately acquainted with that tightness of the chest that rises up from deep within when I even think about someone hurting my kids. However, it is simply not possible to shield them from every scary situation. Kids get lost at the food court. You could have a medical emergency and be incapacitated. They may be approached, even with good supervision, by strangers.
The good news? It is possible to equip your kids to practice caution, use good judgment, and trust their instincts for self-protection. It is also possible to give them concrete, easy-to-remember tools to use in situations where they may be in danger or need help. Here are my top tips and tools for preparing your kiddos for risky situations.
- Set aside time to sit down and have a clear, specific conversation with your kids about safety. Parents generally know what topics to cover (your body is your own, there are some adults in the world who hurt kids, memorize your parents names and phone number, etc.) but often have no idea how to say things to kids, especially little guys. Here’s your cheat sheet: Be calm but serious. Give specific examples of situations and of what you want them to do or say. Instead of “There are bad people out there who might try to make you do something you don’t want to do so watch out,” which is vague and scary, be descriptive and specific: “Most adults are very good and safe people, but there are a few adults out there who try to hurt kids by touching them in ways that feel bad, or taking them away from their parents. It doesn’t happen very often, but it’s something I need you to know about so you can keep yourself safe. If you ever feel scared around an adult, even someone we know, you should leave the situation right away and come find me, no matter what.”
- Avoid “stranger danger” warnings– kids may NEED a stranger at some point. As a child of the 80’s, I was heavily steeped in fear that a weird man in a white van might try to lure me to him with candy (which may or may not have razor blades in it) and that I should never, ever talk to strangers. Then I got lost at Zare’s and didn’t know what the heck to do because everyone was a stranger. Talk to your kids about how to identify a “safe stranger” if they need an adult and you aren’t there. The best suggestion, and what I will use with my own kids once they are old enough to remember it, is to teach them to look for a mom with kids. Moms/families are easy to spot and will always stop and gently help a kid in need. A police officer or security person is a good option as well, so make sure they know how to identify one. Lastly, if they can’t find a mom or a security person, teach them to find an adult in a public place with other adults around, such as a cashier at the checkout of a busy store. If you review these three options with them, your kids will feel empowered and you can take comfort in knowing they won’t have to figure out what to do.
- Teach kids about “tricky people”. The concept of “tricky people” is a critical tool for equipping your kiddos to identify people who may be unsafe. In a nutshell, “tricky people” are adults who ask kids for help, ask kids to keep secrets, or ask kids to do things without their parents’ permission. Let your kids know that safe adults do not ask kids to keep secrets or to do anything without asking you first, and that they are never, ever to go somewhere or do something with another adult without your permission, period.
- Teach kids to stick together. There is safety in numbers. Make sure your kids understand that this is a serious expectation, not just parental nagging like eating your peas or no tracking mud in the house. Mean business on this one.
- Encourage them to trust their instincts. Let your children know that “sometimes your body and your brain will feel nervous, even if you don’t know why,” and that this is a good way to know it’s time to come find you right away. Talk about what your body feels like when it is nervous or scared: tummy feels bad, heart beat speeds up, you feel like you want to leave, etc. Let them know that if they feel bad or weird inside in ANY situation, they should leave the situation and come find you.
- Review what might happen and who might be involved, if there was an emergency and immediate family was not available. Who would you send to pick the kids up from school if your spouse was in a critical car accident? Who would they stay with if something happened and you were not available? Talk to them about adults that do not care for them regularly who might be called on if there was an emergency, so they know what to expect, and so they can tell you who they are comfortable with. If you have a large contingent of local family who your kids know and trust, this might be simple, but for people without a big village of close, trusted adults around, this is important. Let them know that your friend Joan from work, Mrs. Soto from next door, and the McNeil family from daycare might be people who help out if there was an emergency. Ask if they think those are good people to ask for help.
For more information on keeping your kids safe and how to have these conversations, check out these resources:
Shauna Silva, LICSW, CMHS is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker and Child Mental Health Specialist specializing in behavior challenges, family mental health, parent support and coaching, trauma, and child, youth and young adult development. This post is not intended to substitute for consultation with qualified health care professionals. If you have a question for “Ask Shauna,” please contact us at: info(at)burlingtonvtmomsblog(dot)com .
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“Look for a mom with kids” was one I used when mine were small. Thankfully, when realized my youngest was missing from our large family group (about 12) at Disney and I frantically ran back to the last place we had been, she was walking with a mom with a stroller working on finding us instead of freaking out. She was about 6. She is a senior in high school now.
Sometimes kids run when they feel lost, because they are doing their own search combined with fear and confusion. It is a good thing to warn against. “Be still unless someone is helping you. Don’t run away from the last place we were together.”
Also, our family had a “code word” to give if someone outside of the norm came to pick them up in an emergency. We never had use it, so not sure how that would go.
Lastly, in the age of cell phones, when we are in large crowds with small people, we write our cell # on their forearm. Away from where they would wash it off during bathroom breaks. That way they could say, “I am lost, can you call my mom.”
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These are all really great ideas however I have read that you shouldn’t say that there are adults that touch kids in ways that feel bad. Instead you should say there are adults that touch kids in their private areas or something to that effect. If a kid is molested, it is possible that it might actually feel good, in the same sense that rape victims sometimes have orgasms during rape. It is an involuntary response. If a kid thinks they should only tell when it feels bad, they might not understand that they should tell.
^ Melissa good question, I am wondering that too! great article – some easy tips I would never have thought of – like teaching our kids how to find people they can ask for help, and teaching them to pay attention to their intuition. thanks!
This article was great! Just wondering, at what age should we start to have these conversations?
Ok, this was so helpful. I was just talking to another mom about starting this conversation with our kids, but I would never have thought about all of this. I think I will have this post open as a reference! Thank you!
This is wonderful Shauna. Some great points for me to implement with Nora!