You can teach children to be safe without scaring them. Skills and knowledge are the keys to keeping kids safe. The good news is that there are simple and effective ways of teaching children how to protect themselves that will work most of the time. Children need to have clear safety rules both for strangers when they are out on their own and for setting boundaries with people they know. Children need to understand that there are different safety rules when they are not in the care of an adult and when they are on their own. Children who are only a short distance away from an adult in charge even for a few minutes are on their own. They don’t need to worry. They just need to know what to do.
Tips for Talking to Your Kids About Strangers
“Stranger danger” is an idea that can increase anxiety and make it harder for us to figure out ways of helping our children stay safe. Instead, talk about “stranger safety.” Rather than focusing on the bad things that sometimes happen, we encourage parents to focus on teaching and practicing the skills and behaviors they want their children to use to stay safe with strangers. So, instead of making a rule, “Don’t talk to strangers”, it’s better to teach kids when it’s appropriate to talk to strangers and when it is not. When your kids are out with you, it’s fine to let them say hello and talk to new people. You are watching the situation and will protect them. But if your child is alone and approached by a stranger, that’s a different story. Tell your kids that if a stranger ever approaches and offers a ride or treats (like candy or toys) or asks for help with a task (like helping find a lost dog), they should step away, yell “No!” and leave the area immediately. Your child should tell you or another trusted adult (like a teacher or childcare worker) what happened. The same goes if anyone — whether a stranger, family member, or friend — asks your child to keep a secret. Teach your child to always tell an adult if someone asks them to keep a secret from their parents. Most kids are likely to be wary of strangers who are mean-looking or appear scary in some way. But most child abductors are regular-looking people, and many go out of their way to look friendly, safe, and appealing to children. So, instead of judging a person by appearance, teach kids to judge people by their actions. It’s also important to encourage kids to trust their own instincts. Teach them that if someone makes them feel uncomfortable or if they feel like something’s just not right — even if they can’t explain why — they need to walk away immediately. So, what happens if your kids are alone and need to approach a stranger for help? First, they should try to find a person in uniform, like a police officer, security guard, or store employee. If there are no uniformed people, look for grandparents, women, and people with children who may be able to help. And again, remind them about instincts: If they don’t have a good feeling about a certain person, they should approach someone else. It’s not possible to protect kids from strangers at all times. But it is possible to teach them about appropriate behaviors and what to do if somebody crosses the line. Keeping these tips in mind can help your kids stay safe while they’re out and about.
Tell kids in a matter-of-fact way that you believe that most people are good, and that this means that most strangers are good, but that a few people have problems that might cause them to hurt kids. Tell children that they do not have to worry about strangers if they follow the safety rules. If children are by themselves, the safety rule is to come and check with an adult first before getting close to or talking to anyone they don’t know well. Help kids come up with specific examples of people they know well and people they don’t.
Safety Rules for Children when They Are on their Own
• Most people are good. This means most strangers are good
• A stranger is just someone I don’t know and can look like anybody
• The rules are different when I am with an adult who is taking care of me and when I am on my own. When I am on my own, my job is to check first with the adult in charge before I let a stranger get close to me, talk to me, or give me anything
• If I am old enough to be out on my own without an adult to ask, it is safer to be where there are other people close by to get help if I need it
• I do not give personal information to a stranger or to someone who makes me feel uncomfortable
• It is OK to get help from strangers if an emergency is happening to me, and there is no one close by that I know
• My job is to check first with the adult in charge before I go anywhere with anyone (a stranger or someone I know). I will tell the adult in charge where I am going, who will be with me, and what I will be doing
• I will have a safety plan for how to get help anywhere I go
• I will know what my family’s safety rules are for children answering the door, being on the phone, and being on the internet
Children Need to Practice These Skills:
• How to stand and walk with awareness, calm, and respectful confidence
• How to move away and stay out of reach from someone approaching them
• How to walk away from a stranger without waiting even if that person is being very nice
• How to check first even when someone they know and trust says not to
• How to get help from a busy adult if they are lost or scared
• How to make noise, run, and get to safety in case of an emergency
• What to say and do if a stranger approaches them at home
• Saying “No” to unwanted or inappropriate behavior using polite clear words, eye contact, and assertive body language
• Persisting even when someone uses bribes, hurt feelings, or power to try to pressure them into doing something that makes them feel uncomfortable
• Protecting themselves from hurtful words
• Verbal choices for getting out of potentially dangerous situations
• Getting the attention of busy adults and telling the details about situations that make them confused or uncomfortable
Just telling children about safety or just showing children what to do is not enough. When we just talk to children about danger, their raised awareness can actually raise their level of anxiety. Young people learn best by actively participating. Practicing children’s personal safety skills increases their confidence and competence. It is important to do this in a way that is not scary, but is fun.