Although actual incidents of abductions and overtures from strangers are statistically rare, it's natural to want your children to feel cared for, safe and secure. Headlines about missing children strike fear in everyone’s hearts. The question is: How can we educate children to be alert to possible dangers and at the same time encourage them to feel safe and confident in exploring their world?
Susan Helms, director of injury prevention and Safe Kids Mid-South, shares information on talking with your children about strangers.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children maintains that it is much more beneficial to children to help them build the confidence and self-esteem they need to stay as safe as possible in any potentially dangerous situation they encounter, rather than teaching them to be "on the lookout" for a particular type of person. Based on what is known about those who harm children, danger to children is greater from someone they or their family know than from a complete stranger.
Conversations should begin at an early age, with information tailored to the age of your child and adjusted over time. Discuss safety issues in a positive, open and reassuring manner, modeling a calm but realistic problem-solving style. A matter-of-fact approach will make your child aware that he is capable of dealing with life's realities. Even the youngest child can be taught simple rules about personal safety, such as his whole name, address, and phone number, the names of his parents, who to call in an emergency, and how to use the phone to call 9-1-1.
These talking points can help:
- Talk openly about strangers. Don't assume that your young child actually knows what the word "stranger" means. Be sure she is aware that a stranger is anyone he or she doesn't know. In a calm but firm manner, instruct your child to never go anywhere, get in a car, answer questions or accept anything from strangers-- even if the person seems friendly. Stress the fact that strangers should not be asking children for help or giving them things. Remind her that it's sometimes okay, however, to ask strangers for help. Children should know that certain people, although strangers, can be sources of help-- a police officer, a firefighter, a mall security person, a store salesperson, a teacher or a mother with children.
- Help your child identify a safety net of trusted adults and places, such as stores, schools, libraries, places of worship, and homes of neighbors. Discuss safe routes to use on the way to and from school and other destinations, as well as places to avoid, such as deserted areas and parking lots.
- Discuss what your child should do if he or she is separated from you, their caregiver, or teacher in a public place. Make sure he or she knows to go to an employee or security guard and not leave the site.
- Encourage your child to trust his or her intuition and to take action when danger is sensed. Tell your child not to worry about being polite, but to make a lot of noise, run away, scream, shout, kick, or punch. Teach the NO-GO-TELL system. Your child should: 1) Say NO if someone tries to touch or makes him or her feel scared or uncomfortable, 2) GO quickly way from the situation, and 3) TELL a trusted adult.
- When your child is old enough to go out alone, demand that he tells you the three W’s: Who I'm going with, Where I'll be, and When I'll be home. Make sure your child informs you whenever plans change.
- Make safety part of your routine everyday life. Alert your child to ploys that manipulative people may use to ingratiate themselves. Role-play some scenarios on a trip to a park or mall or other public place. For example, you might ask, "Suppose a person in a car asks you for directions? What if someone you don't know comes to pick you up at school or at a playground? What if they say I sent them? What if they ask for your help in finding a lost pet? Or ask if you want to do something that sounds fun?" Practice these and other scenarios on a regular basis to reinforce safety concepts.
- Establish home and phone safety rules. When your child is old enough to stay home alone, insist that keep the doors are locked and never answer questions over the phone or at the door.
- Be aware of your child's Internet activities. Predators often use online chat rooms and other Internet resources to arrange face-to-face meetings with children. Many Internet service providers provide parent-control options to block certain material from coming in to your child's computer. Special filtering software is also an option for blocking objectionable material. Use these tools, and stay involved in your child's activities.