As parents, we do all we can to protect our children, but we often worry that our efforts won't be enough. Instead of letting that fear paralyze us, though, we need to teach our children - from a very young age - real-life stranger danger skills. This includes learning to listen to their own intuition and knowing who to turn to when they need help - which is particularly important if your children are ever home alone or are around individuals you or your ex are dating. Use these strategies to teach your kids to be safe:
Use Books to Teach Your Children About Stranger Danger - Go to the library and check out books on stranger danger. Read through them yourself first and think about how you'll share each story with your kids. Some examples include:
- The Berenstain Bears Learn About Stranger Danger (compare prices)
- Once Upon a Dragon: Stranger Safety for Kids and Dragons (compare prices)
- Stranger Danger: The Reluctantly Written but Absolutely Necessary Book for Today's Boys And Girls! (compare prices)
When my son was little, I even used an old copy of Little Red Riding Hood to talk about what strangers "look" like. (I was surprised to learn that he thought all strangers would look like monsters, rather than like regular people.)
Role Play Potentially Scary Situations - This is one of the most important things you can do. Here are some scenarios you can practice together:
- Getting Lost in the Grocery Store. Teach your children to approach a woman with children. In fact, Gavin de Becker, author of Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane), recommends that kids approach a woman with young children in a stroller. Becker suggests that men are more likely to point a child in the right direction, whereas a woman with young kids in a stroller is more likely to stay with a lost child until he or she is reunited with a parent.
- Feeling Uncomfortable With an Adult - Our kids need to know that it's possible to feel uncomfortable with an adult, and that it's okay to say "No" to an friend's parent or a relative whose attention or body language gives then an icky feeling in the pit of their stomach.
- Someone Threatening to Hurt Their Family - This is unsettling for us to even think about, but some child predators will actually tell a child that they'll hurt their entire family if the child speaks about the abuse or threat of abuse that's happening. As your kids become old enough to have this conversation, let them know that anyone who makes this kind of threat has bad intentions and that you need to know about it immediately.
- Test Your Kids' Instincts in Real Time - Take your children to a public place and have them practice identifying people that they feel would be safe to go to in the event that they needed help. Ask them to explain each choice and take the opportunity to reinforce the concept of approaching a woman with children. You can even take it a step further as your children get older by having them approach a stranger with a question, such as "What time is it?" or "Can you point me toward the movie theaters?" while they're still within your sight. This will help them gain confidence in their ability to identify and speak to a safe person.
- Use Media and/or News to Talk About Stranger Danger - As your children get older, they will hear about various events in the news, on television shows, or in movies where a child is in danger. When it is age-appropriate, discuss these events with your children and what the individuals or characters should have done differently. For example, when I saw the movie Monte Carlo with my daughter, I realized that when she's a little older, I'd like to watch it again and talk about how the three girls all put themselves in situations where they were out on the town with men they did not know, and how they should have used the buddy system instead of going out separately.
Talk About Stranger Danger Again and Again as They Get Older - This is definitely not a "once-and-done" topic. You'll need to discuss stranger danger multiple times throughout your child's life, because their understanding of what danger looks like and feels like will change over time. Some specific things to discuss include:
- Teaching your children to yell from their guts when something doesn't seem right. Take the time to practice actually doing it, too, so that they can get used to what that sounds like.
- Using bath time to talk about what areas of the body no one else should be touching. In addition, reinforce the concept that your child should tell you immediately if anyone makes him or her feel uncomfortable or tries to touch any of these off-limits areas.
- Help your children learn to identify that "icky" feeling that comes when we feel uncomfortable, and let them know that they should always listen to that feeling. It's far better to overreact and offend someone than to stay in a situation that feels unsettling and could possibly be dangerous.
- Reinforce the idea repeatedly that even the adults we know can occasionally make us feel uncomfortable and that it's okay to say "No" to adults. Instructing our kids to obey their elders without question inadvertently teaches them to ignore their own intuition. Children need to be taught how to respectfully disagree and ask questions, and that they should flat-out say "No" when something doesn't feel right.
As parents, we need to teach our children how to be safe and how to recognize and respond to unsettling feelings. Coupled with role playing and reinforcement, these stranger danger skills can empower our kids and actually help to make them unlikely targets at the same time.
De Becker, Gavin. Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane). New York: Dell, 2000. N. pag. Print.