The old advice was to tell kids not to talk to strangers, but this doesn’t work because staying safe goes way deeper than that. These 4 tips will help you teach your child about stranger danger, the right way.
Sometimes all you want to do is to get out of the house for a few minutes alone, or to take a shower without your little one screaming in protest. When you’re deep in the natural development stage of separation anxiety, it seems unreal that you’d ever be teaching your kid to be wary around strangers. But sooner than later, you will need to have the talk with your kids. These tips will help:
1. Teach what a “stranger” is.
The old advice was to tell kids not to talk to strangers, and that’s it. But this doesn’t work for a few reasons:
- Children have different perceptions of what a stranger is. Some may see everyone they don’t know as a stranger. Others may have it in their heads that only those who are rough-looking or strange-acting are strangers. If the stranger is friendly and kind, which doesn’t necessarily equate safety, some kids won’t label them as strangers.
- Some strangers are exactly who our children need to talk to if they are in danger. If your child gets lost in the grocery store, they need to be able to find a store associate to get help. Your child needs to be able to identify those in their environment to whom they can go for safety, such as a police officer or firefighter or another parent.
- Most child predators are not strangers. This is an important point. Kidnapping is a concern, but a big threat to most kids is sexual abuse. And the primary culprits of this threat are people you have deemed to be safe for your kids to be around. It may be your neighbor, a teacher, your child’s friend’s older sibling, even a family member — potentially anyone could be in this category.
When my girls were toddlers, we moved to an acreage and began to sell farm-fresh eggs, mostly promoted by a roadside sign. Just about everyone who drove up our lane looking for eggs was a stranger! Previously I had just told the girls to not talk to strangers. But when they were so scared of the egg customers that they locked the house door or ran and hid in the trees with me in plain sight, I figured I needed to change how I was teaching about stranger danger.
At about the same time, my husband had gone to the store with the girls and our oldest wandered off. He was frantic, looking for her, and a store associate did finally find her but she refused to talk, complicating the reunification process a bit.
The first part of reteaching was redefining what I meant by “stranger.” Yes, a stranger is anyone they don’t know — but how they react to someone goes way deeper than that.
2. Teach what to do around a stranger.
I remember my mom telling me to never get into a car with a stranger, and if a stranger ever tried to force me to leave with him or her, to scream. This is still good advice for our children. But we don’t want our children to be terrified of everyone they see that they don’t know. And how should they act when a kind stranger says “hi” to them in the grocery store?
I’m still trying to get my kids to consistently say “thank you” if a stranger compliments them. I want them to be friendly and outgoing, and most importantly, to not be scared of other people just because they’re strangers. A lot of this behavior comes back to what I model to strangers, myself. Do I smile and make small talk in the store? Do I show how to be friendly toward others while also clearly maintaining my boundaries?
The boundary part is important. It’s not that we should teach our children to be trusting of strangers — no, not at all! But being wary of a person doesn’t have to necessarily equate acting terrified. It just means we set some boundaries that if the other should cross, would signal to ourselves that this may be an unsafe situation and we should find a way out. So, a part of this lesson is teaching our children to trust their gut instincts.
And if that physical boundary has been crossed, we want our child to not just scream, but scream the right words! Think about it: When’s the last time you saw a kid having a tantrum near an adult? It’d be hard to tell if a child was having a legitimate tantrum with his parent or if he was being abducted.
Here’s an idea: Have your child scream “Who are you?” or “Where’s my mom and dad?” or “I don’t know you!” That’d draw some attention.
Also, give your child permission to really make a scene during this — scream, hit, kick, claw the stranger’s eyes out, throw things, knock things off the shelf, whatever. The idea is to attract someone’s attention — actually get someone to come over to talk to the kid and adult — so the stranger is less likely to continue with his plan.
This can seem a little too abstract for our kids, but a great way to teach this is through role play. By using various scenarios — from a stranger taking her hand at the park or offering a piece of candy to get into his car or following your child as he walks home from school, to finding someone to help them if they get lost — they have a concrete memory to attach the tips they’re learning for better recall later.
3. Teach about safe touch.
There really should only be two people in the world who can touch your child in his or her private areas besides your child: you and the doctor. Talk to your child about what his or her private areas are, and who is allowed to touch those private areas and for what reason. For example, I may need to look at my child’s bottom if he complains of itching or pain. No one else does, unless it’s during a medical visit. My child needs to be able to trust me.
Because a child is more likely to be sexually abused by someone they know and trust, it’s important that you are careful to talk to them about physical boundaries with anyone — and that you respect those physical boundaries if your child says you are making her uncomfortable.
Be careful when tickling your child, for example. Tickling can be fun, but many of us know what it feels like when the tickling goes too far and we can’t breathe for the giggles and just want the tickling to stop. Allowing a child to say “no” and then to stop the tickling teaches him physical boundaries. The same lesson is taught when we allow our children to decide whether or not to hug other people, like grandparents, particularly if the person is insistent but our child is not willing.
Scary as it sounds, there are reports of children finding themselves in unsafe situations while having a sleepover at a friend’s house. Whether this regards unsafe touch or another uncomfortable activity, consider teaching a code word that your child can use if they call you and want to come home or just to talk over the situation.
A code word can also work the other way. You can use the code word in public areas when you want to warn your children of an unsafe situation without drawing attention to yourself. Hopefully this would never happen to you, but consider how helpful a code word would be if a shooter was in the same building as your family.
4. Teach about who is a safe stranger.
Ideally there would be a police officer or firefighter everywhere where scary situations are happening to a child, but we both know that’s not likely. Even people working in a store aren’t always so helpful to children. So what’s the next best thing?
Teach your child to go to another mom with kids. While this isn’t foolproof, we know that mothers are most likely to be compassionate and to imagine what it’d feel like to have our own lost child, and then to work to find a lost child’s family.