How to Teach ‘Stranger Danger’ Without Evoking Fear
One of the hardest parts about being a parent is having to decide when and how to trust your child’s well-being with or around strangers. That babysitter from down the street. That Santa at the mall. That flight attendant that is oh-so-helpful.
Through this process, there are also learning patterns that we have to teach our children in order to ensure their safety as well as for them to understand what it means to be safe in the first place. However, there has been a wider debate as to whether there’s more harm in teaching “stranger danger” rather than letting a child learn to know for themselves when they’re in danger, even in the presence of someone they know.
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reports that "stereotypical" kidnappings only happen to an estimated 105 children each year. That means the likelihood of a child being abducted or molested by a stranger is extremely rare.
In fact, it's more typical for these crimes to occur with a person known as “safe” or “familiar” to the child and their parents. While this is scary to admit, you don't need to terrify your kids. We’ve got you covered on how to prepare your child for dealing with a stranger — good or bad.
The Three Tools Kids Need
There are many reactions children have that are innate and instinctual, but there are also those that require a length of time to decipher whether or not they feel safe.
By possessing instinct, discernment and intuition while learning their importance and what they are, our children become better equipped to handle different scenarios.
Instinct is derived from a Latin word that translates to “impulse.” Our instinct is actually a chemical reaction that happens from within our bodies.
According to "Science Daily," these are inherited patterns of responses or reactions to a certain kind of stimuli to aid in survival. Examples of instinct include birds migrating before the winter or an infant sucking to signify he or she is looking for nourishment.
Discernment is the ability to make good judgments or obtain a sharply read perception based on various factors placed before them.
Unlike instinct, discernment is typically something that is formed over a period of time. The more time allotted in the process of discernment, the better choice-making occurs.
"Psychology Today" defines intuition as a process that gives us the ability to know something directly without analytic reasoning, bridging the gap between the conscious and subconscious parts of the mind, and also between instinct and reason.
Intuition can also be referred to as a “gut feeling.” That moment when you have a feeling that something is off or not right, and you feel unsettled in your stomach as a result, is intuition.
Judgement in Ordinary vs. Odd Interactions
Through strengthening these three ways children understand their feelings and the world around them, we can help them to be more safe.
There are effective tools that parents and children can both use in making the best judgment in both odd and ordinary situations.
Crying With Santa (Odd)
Many parents love the idea of their children taking holiday pictures with Santa or the Easter Bunny, and oftentimes even have a good laugh while their child is crying.
However, these are moments when children are exhibiting their innate function of showing their discomfort in the company of a stranger. Although the moment is not lasting, it is important for adults to encourage their children to exhibit these honest emotions when feeling uncomfortable or unsafe.
Babysitters Club (Ordinary)
For those parents who need the extra hand in hiring a nanny or babysitter, it’s imperative to establish cues with your children.
A good rule of thumb, when having someone new in the home, is obtaining references and police-verified background checks, and have an initial meeting (or multiple) between the child and sitter in order for them to build a discernment for that person.
Helping Children Become Equipped
It is important to have an open dialogue with our children about things that should be considered harmful or unsafe to them. Also, explaining to them that anything they deem as uncomfortable needs to be told to their parents or trusted adult immediately.
Some children may be shy in coming forth with information, but there are a few ways to help them.
Use a Code Word
Using a code word can be extremely helpful. It can be a secretive word that your child knows that no one else will understand, but you and them. It should be something that isn’t a common word they use in everyday sentence structure. Think something like “pineapple” or “wizard.”
That way if the word is ever used, it will be understood as a warning. Putting this into practice, so that the child can remember this word, how to use it and when to use it helps in this process.
Knowledge Is Power
For children old enough, it’s vital that they know key things about themselves and their parents:
1. Their name (first and last)
2. Their parents' names (first and last)
3. Their phone number (home or parents' cell)
4. Their home address
5. How to call 9-1-1 and the importance of using this number in emergencies only
Statements to Openly Identify a Stranger
It’s also important that they know the appropriate statements to use when identifying a stranger:
1. “Who are you?”
2. “I don’t know you!”
3. “Where’s my mom/dad?”
There are also situations in which our children will have to learn to be comfortable in the presence or care of strangers. They may have a caregiver or may be attending school and need to understand that it is okay to feel comfortable but still be aware.
For these purposes, there are further tools to enact building a trust with others, outside their parents.
Have a Talk
Sitting down with your child and explaining what’s going to happen is important. By letting them know that you may have to leave them, but only for a certain amount of time, can help them in coping with separation anxiety.
Also, asking them how they feel about it and acknowledging that those feelings are valid and considered can create a furthered trusting environment for the child.
Take It Slow
There’s no need to push your child into a situation that they may display is causing a negative reaction. As opposed to leaving them in the care of others right away, it may be necessary to stay with them a while in their first interactions.
Calling them every so often to check and see how they are doing can also allow them to not feel abandoned. Also, explain to caregivers, teachers and family members that it’s important that they do not make sudden movements toward the child like picking them up, kissing them or giving them hugs. Boundaries are very important when providing learning tools to get a sense of comfort and trust.
Although children can be very verbal, a lot of their cues of anger, stress or discomfort are nonverbal. Here are warning signs to look for with your child:
1. Nightmares and/or disrupted sleep patterns
2. A sudden want to be overly clingy with you
3. Throwing tantrums or exhibiting rage
4. Becoming very secretive
5. Displaying distance and withdrawal
6. Not eating
7. Refusing to be around certain people
In a similar vein, there are also physical signs that include:
1. Bruising or visible scars on the body
2. Child nursing a specific body part by holding it or wincing
3. Bleeding or discoloration of the urine
Children are often taught that they must listen and obey adults, which can cause turmoil in instances that the adult is asking or demanding something dangerous to their health, well-being, and overall safety.
Furthermore, it’s great to inform your children that there are certain body parts others are not allowed to touch. In addition to the body, letting them know places they are not allowed to go or people that they are not allowed to be around without their parents presence or permission is also a constructive tool in side-stepping potential harms.
In the end, we must also do the work in using our best judgement and perceptive devices when having to put our children in someone else’s care — even for a moment. Our greatest way to alleviate mishaps is by trusting our children’s reactions, as well as our own instincts. The more tools we are equipped with as parents, the more we can further instruct and guide our children to have keen insight into the world around them.