Stranger Danger: Talking To Your Kids Straight
It is important that children know what to do to stay safe. This means preparing them for some pretty scary stuff! As parents, we do not want to scare our kids and it can just be easier to avoid the conversation all together. But what if I told you that the conversation could be empowering for children and that it did not need to be scary.
It is human nature to feel more secure when we understand something and know how to handle a situation. The other major benefit of having such conversations is that it allows you to prepare the child for additional situations AND even more importantly it opens paths of communication. These paths of communication can be the best prevention for your child ever being selected as a potential victim in the first place.
So how to tackle this delicate subject. Well, first off this needs to be a series of conversations. By making it a series it allows your information intensity to gradually increase. A series 0f conversations will help normalize such conversations for you and your child. This will make it more comfortable for you to initiate and convey that comfort to the child which in turn lets them know that it is acceptable for them to raise such topics as well.
Predators are able to decern when potential victims seem weak or convey a lack of confidence. Skilled predators can pick from observing children the child who needs adult attention or who would be more easily swayed. By having these types of conversations with your kids, you take major steps towards making them unappealing to predators. It may be hard to believe, but it is true. Predators may not even be able to articulate what they are looking for in a victim but they analyze body language, demeanor, confidence. If they have more engagement with the child (coach, counselor, neighbor, family member) then they can gain even more information. What makes a child most vulnerable is an uncommunicative relationship with the parents, insecure family attachments, and home life instability or trauma.
By talking to your child in a preparative way you demonstrate support and develop those vital pathways of communication.
While on the topic of people who would harm children I should be clear that there are a variety of types. There are those who are what we think of as true predators, the ones who think and plot and plan. There are those who are opportunistic and thus pretty easily avoidable. Finally, there are those who are impulsive. In Part 2 of this series I will go over the types of predators more thoroughly for now, I will focus on the starting a series of conversations with your child. It is just so hard to know where to start.
The First Conversation
This initial conversation benefits from a jumping off point. By this, I mean something that brings the topic to the table in your child’s mind. It is best for this jumping off point to be as unfrightening as possible. I would not recommend selecting a kidnapping movie, tying it to a tragic news event, or a recent event in your town. That said sometimes that is what spurs a question from the child or has brought it up for discussion in your home. If that is the case I suggest that the intensity of the situation be diffused with reassurances.
I like this book for the purpose of bringing the topic to the table for discussion. It provides some clear information and does not leave the child feeling afraid.
To start, carve out some time in the day when the child is calm, you will not be rushed, you can eliminate distractions, and you can sit face to face with them. This is not a conversation for the car ride. It is not a conversation to have on a busy school morning. It is not a conversation to be had while cartoons play in the background. These conversations are also NOT for bedtime. If a child initiates the conversation at bedtime as they are prone to do use your judgment. The conversation can be redirected to another point in time. However, if you know that your child is likely to dismiss it when you bring it back up the next afternoon than perhaps you proceed.
Begin the conversation by asking the child’s thoughts about strangers or asking if they know what to do around strangers.
Phase 1: Who can you talk to/ Who is Safe
What to Say
- Most people are safe and there are situations in which you may need to talk to a stranger. Give examples like when they need to ask an employee of a store a question when they need to ask for directions, or if they get separated from their parent.
- Explain to the child that if they are approaching someone to speak to them it is even more likely that the situation will be safe.
- Describe the types of people you would rather that your child approach such as employees with name badges, police, and teachers. One terrific option is to tell your child if they are ever lost of in need of help to approach any mother who has children with her. If a child is lost, hurt, or scared another mom is likely to be the least intimidating person to approach for a child. They can see she is already caring for children and she is highly likely to ooze empathy for their situation.
- Friendly “Hellos” and “How are you’s” are fine. We want our children to feel confident engaging in passing with neighbors, friends, the friendly store employee. Let them know that none of these situations put them at risk.
What Not to Say
- Never talk to strangers it is not safe. This oversimplification does not equip the child with the necessary reasoning skills to think through complex life situations. It does not leave them feeling in control. It implies a sense of impending danger all around them and increases fear.
Phase 2: Who Not to Talk to and How
What to Say
- Do not respond to or engage with someone who appears to be “off.” Encourage them to utilize that little voice in their head that tells them when someone is not quite right. Give them examples at this point. Describe to them the person they saw sitting in front of a store talking to themselves and unkempt. Describe a man at a park or schoolyard watching kids play but who does not have kids with him.
- Next, describe what the child can do to avoid people they feel are off. They can walk away from the situation. They can tell the adult supervising them. Sometimes it is really as simple as being aware that there is a person they have a concern about and creating space. I give the example of a homeless person talking to themselves in front of a restaurant and describe how we would go into that restaurant through another door perhaps if possible or we could enter while keeping a mindful eye on the person we are concerned about and giving them as much physical space from us as the situation allows. At this point I explain that most mentally ill people are not going to hurt anyone, but if there is an indication that they are not well then it behooves us to be alert and aware because their behavior could be erratic. This is absolutely true and it helps to give the child this information. They need to know to trust their instincts but that even then most of the people who they may feel are “off” do not have intentions of hurting them.
- Try to pull in examples from your life and the child’s life. Detailed examples help a child to feel prepared to make reasonable judgments and take reasonable steps to avoid danger and stay alert.
- Repeatedly mention that often the best way to stay safe is to be alert to the behaviors of anyone they sense could be a threat.
What Not to Say
- If you see someone who you think may be dangerous run away screaming for help. This is just not informative. It does not leave a child feeling more prepared to handle situations that arise in life. When left unprepared for a potential threat the only option is fear. That and to encourage running away and screaming at this feeling of someone being “off” is such a gross overreaction that the vast majority of children would not do it and so now the one concrete oversimplified tool they were given will be something they don’t feel like they can use.
Phase 3: Judging and Reacting to a Potential Threat
What to Say
- If a strange adult or older child approaches keep a physical distance at least twice their leg length. This is concrete and simple. Show your child by example how far they need to keep their distance from someone the size of their mother versus the size of their father for example. Teach them that if the person is a stranger who has approached them it is perfectly acceptable to take steps backward to convey that they want their distance. If the person continues to step forward into their space then they need to walk away quickly without ending the conversation first.
- Examples are key for kids here the more the better. If a stranger approaches you in a public place such as a park or shopping mall and asks you to go with them to help them find their puppy or their child. Tell them No and walk away. Explain to your child that an adult should be asking another adult for this kind of help and the intention could be to get them to follow them somewhere more secluded away from the safety of having other people around to see what they are doing.
- If someone offers rides or invites you to come and see or get something from their car ALWAYS say no firmly, walk away, and tell a safe person.
- Never take any food or candy from a stranger.
- Never move in closer to a stranger to provide assistance or to see something they are offering to show you. Give examples. Ask your child what if the strange lady on the bench seems sweet and offers you a cookie from her lunch? What if a man approaches you at the park with a box in hand offering to show you his pet bunnies?
- Never go into a public restroom without someone supervising you or visually inspecting the bathroom first. Clarify that at __ age or when they are older the responsibility will become theirs to inspect the bathroom before entering. They need to know that like crossing a street going into any private area in an otherwise public place should always be done with observation and standard precautions. Look before you leap always.
What Not to Say
- If anyone approaches you asking you to look at something, follow them, help them, or take a ride from them immediately run away screaming. Perhaps they should but they likely won’t. We want our kids to be safe above all else. I am fine with my child running away screaming help from a stranger who offers them candy. Realistically though children do not want to over react and are more likely to hesitate when being asked to engage in a behavior they feel is extreme for the situation. We as parents know that the situation may very well call for it but this is where phase 4 comes in.
Phase 4: WHEN TO RUN, SCREAM, KICK, BITE, FIGHT
What to Say
- If a stranger has approached you and becomes angry, frustrated, or annoyed while talking to you because you are saying no to their requests immediately run away while calling for help.
- If a stranger moves towards you as you are backing up trying to maintain your space.
- If a stranger is becoming angry or annoyed because you are maintaining your physical space by stepping backward immediately run away while calling for help
- If a stranger approaches in a hurried (running, walking rapidly with intensity) run away while yelling for help
- If a stranger makes any abrupt motion towards you (grabbing, rushing in towards, lunging) immediately run away while calling for help
- If a stranger has a weapon (gun, knife, large stick) immediately run away calling for help.
- If a stranger grabs you by the arm yell for help, kick, pull, wiggle, bite, scratch at their eyes
- If a stranger grabs you around the body yell for help, kick, bite, scratch at their eyes.
- If a stranger tells you not to scream or you will be hurt absolutely scream. Scream for help. Scream that they are not your daddy/mommy
- If a stranger covers your mouth bite hard and try to pull back the pinky finger as hard as possible.
- If a stranger has a weapon scream, and fight
- If a stranger is trying to remove you from a public place like into a car, closet, or bathroom fight and scream even if they say they will hurt you if you do.
What Not to Say
- Do not give any graphic details of what the stranger may want to do to them
- Do not advise children to cooperate if the stranger has a weapon. Studies show they are less likely to use a weapon in public than they are to flee.
Phase 5: Empowerment and Reassurance
What to Say
- Explain that people who want to hurt kids or take them away are much less likely to choose a child who knows what to do and has the confidence to act. Tell them that just having these conversations with their parents makes it less likely that anyone would try to hurt them. This is true. Predators watch for kids that seem to be unprepared and emotionally vulnerable.
- Remind them that these things happen very rarely and it is more than likely that they will never face such a situation
- Remind them that every day you as their parent make choices to protect them, and to avoid a situation where they could be vulnerable. Give examples like watching them walk into school, being on time to pick them up, supervising them at the park…
- Remind them that most people want nothing but safety, security, and happiness for children.
- Explain to your child that if they ever have concerns about anyone in their lives, in their school, at the park, while you are out at a restaurant together- anywhere-anytime that they can and should talk to you about it. This is intended to be a first conversation, not an isolated conversation. Once that pathway is open you keep it open by making good on that promise to always talk to them about their concerns and by revisiting the conversation periodically.
What Not to Say
- Nothing– The worst thing to do is to leave this part out. Just don’t end on the run away screaming for help stuff. It needs to end on a note of empowerment. Leave them feeling like they have good judgment and know what to look for and do to stay safe.
For more discussion about how to prepare kids for other Emergency Situations click here.
To read about how to prepare and protect children from sexual predators click here.
To read about protecting children from sexual abuse by opening paths of communication click here
Latest posts by Shannon (see all)
- Social Anxiety: More Than Shy - July 10, 2016
- 3 BIG Reasons To Give Children Specific Meaningful Praise - June 27, 2016
- Protecting Children From Sexual Predators: Safety Without Paranoia - June 6, 2016