Stranger Danger: Keeping Kids Safe
Three-quarters of parents say abduction tops their list of parenting worries, over car accidents, sports injuries or drug addiction, according to the Mayo Clinic. The FBI reports that a child is abducted or becomes missing every 40 seconds in the U.S., so it's no wonder that teaching kids about "stranger danger" is a top parenting priority.
But teaching children to fear all strangers is misguided, says Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children. Strangers do not commit the vast majority of abductions; research from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found that 85 percent of abducted children were taken by someone familiar to the child. And sometimes approaching a stranger is the right thing for a child to do — like when he or she becomes separated from parents in a public place.
Here's how to teach kids the facts about stranger safety.
Ages 2-6 Safe strangers
Despite the scaryscenarios that fill the evening news, strangers pose little danger to children in a public space, says Gavin de Becker, author of Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe. That's because predators rely on privacy and secrecy to harm children. Instead of teaching children to fear all strangers, it's wiser to teach age-appropriate safety guidelines.
If a child becomes separated from his or her parents, he or she should learn to search for a "safe stranger" to ask for help. The best bet is a mom with kids, says Rachel Galanter, a family support specialist at the Exchange Clubs' Family Center in Durham. Help young children memorize parents' full names and phone numbers by putting the information into a catchy tune like "Bingo" or "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." And make sure children know you will never be angry at them for telling you a secret, even one they promised to keep.
Ages 7-10 Just say 'no'
Instead of using a blanket "all strangers are bad" policy, parents can teach school-age children to recognize suspicious adult behavior, Skenazy says. Tactics used by predators include asking for help finding a lost pet, promising gifts or saying they have been sent by the family to take the child to his parent.
Teach children a code word that only friends and family members will know, and that they should never get into a car or go anywhere with an adult who does not know the code word.
School-age children are generally taught to obey adults, but this lesson can be harmful in certain situations. Studies show that children younger than age 9 rarely say "no" to sexual predators because they don't want to disobey an adult. Children should feel empowered to say "no" to a predator or any adult who makes them uncomfortable, Galanter says.
Ages 11-18 Public peril
Teens want to appear cool and be liked, but they need to know it isn't necessary for them to be friendly to everyone who approaches them in a public space, Galanter says. If an adult asks to use a teen's cellphone or offers the teen a ride, some food or a drink, teens should say a firm, "No, thank you!" and notify another adult if the person persists. Dangerous strangers usually try to gain trust by acting friendly, so teens should learn to resist any adult who works hard to befriend them.
Help a teen reach you in an unsafe situation by agreeing on a special texting code to use in emergencies. And teens shouldn't feel too embarrassed to scream, kick and attract attention if they're in a dangerous situation, Skenazy says. "Often, the potential molester will leave. Like most of us, they'd prefer their job to be easy," she says.
Teaching children and teens the basics of stranger safety builds confidence and peace of mind for parents and children. "You can't child-proof the world," Skenazy says. "Think of this as 'world-proofing' your child."
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published health journalist and mom.