(Written by Sophie Peak) Kids need freedom to grow in confidence and independence, as well as to have fun and explore. But while it’s important for them to have time away from their parents, it’s essential to first equip them with the knowledge of how to stay safe and protect themselves, and the skills to get help if they need it. Explaining things in an effective and child-friendly way is important to minimize fear but maximize preparedness. Many parents find it difficult to address the subject of stranger danger in particular, because they don’t want to run the risk of making their child anxious or paranoid about adults or the world around them.
Traditionally, children have been told not to talk to or trust strangers, but this approach is unproductive, especially for younger children, because they are dependent on adults and trusting by nature. Most young children have no choice but to follow the instructions of the adults around them. They are taught to listen to and respect adults, and often told not to be shy with new people and that people are friendly. To then tell the child that they shouldn’t talk to or trust strangers creates a mixed message. On top of that, children are often innocent and oblivious, so it can be difficult for them to grasp that there are adults who would intentionally cause them harm.
Another important factor to consider is that most children are harmed by adults they know and trust, not by strangers, so the old-fashioned stranger danger approach doesn’t cover every situation. This is particularly the case whether it’s at a children’s birthday party or even at friends and family gatherings. A much more comprehensive strategy is to teach children to be aware of their intuition and feelings, and prepare them to react to a multitude of scenarios.
Some general guidelines:
- Train your child to recognize and understand their range of emotions and feelings and share them with you. Make it clear that they can tell you anything at any time.
- Show them the difference between feeling safe and unsafe, emphasizing the fact that they have the right to feel safe at all times.
- The NCPC encourages communication. Clarify that even if they are wrong in their perception of a situation or person, they can talk to you about how they feel, and you won’t criticize them or accuse them of telling tales.
- Let them know that they have the right to refuse to do something that feels wrong to them, and instill in them the ability to stand up for themselves and be assertive.
- Teach them about personal space and areas of their body that nobody should touch, along with explaining that they don’t need to keep secrets that feel uncomfortable or wrong to them. Reassure them that they are protected by you and other trusted adults.
- A Dr Phil article suggests parents supervise them and watch for troubling behaviors, but also allow them to be independent and explore, because this will make them more self-sufficient in the long run. You want them to know what to do when you’re not there.
It’s not enough to simply tell them what to do; you have to practice it with them through role playing, showing them how to dial for help, and making sure they know essential information, such as their address and phone number. On your end, be conscious of any worrying behaviors your child exhibits, and be aware of people that are around your child. Of course, you can’t be with your child 24/7 and you don’t want to overbearing, but when you are with them, be attentive and engaged.
Use age-appropriate and child-friendly language and give them examples and terms that they can relate to. Incorporate discussions about dangerous situations, peer pressure, risky activities, bullies and predators into normal family conversation, using your own experiences and anecdotes. When addressing sensitive topics like stranger danger, the most important thing is not to inadvertently traumatize the child with scare tactics and instill anxiety and paranoia. You want to make them feel knowledgeable and empowered, not nervous and victimized. The key is to prepare, not scare.
About the author: Sophie Peak is a mother of three young children. She writes regularly on topics that relate to raising children.