Talking to Young Children about Strangers
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Talking to Young Children about Strangers
I'm wondering how to talk to my 3.5 yr-old daughter about
the ''bad people'' in the world-- kidnappers, intruders, etc.
without frightening her. This issue came up because the
other day, while her father was talking to an acquaintance
on the street, my daughter got tired of waiting for him and
ran to our parked car by herself. She rounded the corner
and disappeared from his view. It was in the evening,
getting dark, and it was not our neighborhood. Her father
was understandably quite upset and scolded her about
always staying in his view, and the ''strangers'' who could
kidnap her, etc. That night, my daughter woke up many
times from bad dreams and asked about strangers
grabbing you and taking you home, whether our front door
was locked, etc. I don't feel this incident was handled in the
best way, but then I'm not sure what is the best way to have
handled this matter. My daughter is asking questions like,
''Why do we lock the door at night'' and ''Why do I have to stay
in your view,'' so I know it's time to talk about the dangers of
the world. How do I do it in an age-appropriate way that will
not make her feel frightened and insecure?
I believe that I am out of the norm, but I don't talk to my kids about "stranger danger" or being kidnapped. I believe that it would unnecessarily make them fearful of the world. I prefer to encourage being friendly and outgoing. Plus, it is very hard to describe what a stranger is because we are constantly talking to people we don't know (store personnel, friends of friends, people on BART). Stranger danger awareness would not stop someone from kidnapping my child because if someone wanted to, they could simply physically take him. So at this point, they are under constant adult supervision. When they are old enough to bike or walk around the neighborhood alone, that is when I will educate them about stranger danger. I would soft-pedal your responses: staying in your view is "so you don't get lost." The answer to locked doors is "so people have to knock before they come in."
My two cents
Check out Protecting the Gift (sorry, forget the author's name) which is about what to tell kids to protect them, but not scare them. It is a little intense in that it has a lot of stories about things going wrong, but it also is really rational about stranger danger. Lots of good advice about what exactly to say and not to say. I think there may be a website also.
I would suggest reading her a book that deals with the theme. We have a Berenstain Bears Book on Strangers. It gives good advice without being too scary.
When my boys were little the rule was that you never, ever, EVER go anywhere (not even around the corner) without telling the adult in charge. I explained to them that when the adult in charge can't see them it feels scary - just like when they can't see the adult. This totally eliminated the need to scare the bejesus out of them with stories of strangers. If you tell kids not to talk to strangers and then you strike up a conversation with the person in front of you at Safeway, how do you explain?
I think it is wonderful that you are being proactive about your child's safety. I strongly recommend the book ''Protecting the
Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane)'' by Gavin DeBecker. De Becker deals quite explicitly and practically with these issues.
It is important to know that your daughter is much, much more likely to be kidnapped or abused by someone she knows than by a stranger (this means, counterintuitively, that her father's acquaintance posed the greatest risk of anyone in the strange neighborhood); also, a terrified child is not one who can make good decisions if she does get lost. At 3.5 years you can simply tell her she needs to stay where you can see here, and that's ''the rule''; if you need an explanation, talk about her general safety from things like falling or getting lost. RE locking the door at night, it could be make sure that people let you know before they come in the house.
Finally, De Becker stresses that you should _not_ tell your child to find a police officer if she gets lost, since small children don't distinguish security guards (who, surprisingly, often have criminal backgrounds) from police. Instead tell her to find a woman and ask her for help. He points out that with near certainty, a woman approached by a child in danger will not rest until that child is safe. -- good luck!
another concerned mother
Whatever you end up saying please keep in mind that abuses and kidnaps are mostly done by people you and your child know.
I HIGHLY recommend that you take a workshop from Kidpower on this very issue!
They offer them 2-3 times per year in Berkeley, and the cost is quite minimal. They do a fantastic job of teaching parents how to talk to kids without scaring the daylights out of them. The trainers emphasize that there is no point to creating fear, you want to create confidence and empowerment. They help you learn to teach kids the skills they need to be safe, but without scaring them. For example, when explaining why you want a child to do a certain thing (or not do something), use the smallest reason that the child will consider valid. If the child agrees that it is a valid reason, they will understand and comply, and you will not have terrified them. That is just one of many things they cover - contact them and find out how soon they have a workshop, I can't recommend them enough!
There is a Berenstain Bears book about Strangers that introduces this adequately. You might try that.
There is a ''Safety Class'' offered by Oakland Children's Hospital. The
class may be free. It is done over 3 sessions. The first session is with a
parent and/ or guardian and the other 2 sessions are with the parent/ guardian and the child. This is a worthwhile class.
One of the kids that I take care of is taking the class with his mom. The subject of ''strangers'' does come up and so does appropriate touching even from people we trust and know. (come on, we can't blame ''strangers'' for every bad thing...) Give them a call and find out about the next class time. I think that it is worth it.
We had a similar problem and we weren't sure what to do about it.
Then we ran across a book version of Pinocchio and in it, Stromboli kidnaps Pinochio and puts him in a cage. This presented a great opportunity to explain about why they shouldn't talk to strangers, etc. Now, Stromboli has become a sort of metaphor for dangerous strangers whenever we want to stress the point (i.e.
''You shouldn't run away from Mommy in the store like that because someone like Stromboli could be shopping here too.'') Our child seems to be gradually getting the basic idea and doesn't get frightened by the thought of Stromboli. The movie version of Pinocchio may be scary to a child that young but if you can find the book version, it might be better.
I just happened to receive a Berenstain Bears book about strangers. My almost 4 y.o.
likes it. It emphasizes not talking to and especially not accepting gifts or rides from strangers. Sister Bear is bothered by scary dreams too, and learns to be cautious but not fearful.
Children are very bright, as I'm sure you know. I think the best approach is to be honest with them. They should have some fear of bad strangers, or what you tell them won't ''stick''.
However, I can completely understand you not wanting her to have nightmares and such. I recommend being honest, but balancing it with talk about safe people and safe places. This may better help her understand that while there are bad people in the world, there are so many good ones, too. And she doesn't have to feel hopeless if she knows how to take care of herself or be with someone who can take care of her.
I am a marriage, family and child therapist, with a young daughter myself. I believe in being frank about the topic of strangers, but offering information that is age appropriate.
It is important for children to understand boundaries, and what to do if they are approached by someone they don't know.
Children are very literal at this age, and will equate strangers as anyone not in their family or group of close friends. The woman behind you in line at Safeway, smiling at your daughter is ''a stranger'', but you don't necessarily want her to become afraid that everyone may be a threat to her safety. You may want to say something like, ''it is very important to stay close to mommy/daddy when we are out. we don't want you to get lost. some strangers are not nice to children. most people are nice, but some people are not, and you cannot tell if they are nice or mean just by looking at them. if we are out at the park or a store and someone smiles or tries to talk to you, it is okay as long as we are right there with you, and we can talk to the person too. if I am not right there, come and get me right away.
The main lesson here, though, is to make sure your child is closely supervised at all times. Some parents have different comfort levels about this,(I am always amazed by the parent who allows their toddler to practically run into the street, half a block ahead of them) but when you have a small child, it literally takes two seconds for them to disappear around a corner and scare the living daylights out of you--so, best to keep them by the hand, in the shopping cart, or if you are in a restaraunt and they want to move about while you are still eating, use the ''keep one hand on the table'' rule, ''you can go anywhere, but you must keep one hand, finger, thumb, touching some part of the table (or chair)''. A small child cannot really be held responsible for wandering off, especially when the adult is responsible for supervising them at all times. If you would expect a high level of supervision from a babysitter, then the parents should maintain the same standard. I know it can be a challenge, but it is sa
Better safe than sorry.
Our 3.5 year old was playing downstairs and the doors were locked and we
were upstairs getting dressed. I realized it had gotten very quiet and
I went downstairs and the door was wide open. I ran outside and she was
no where to be seen. You can only imagine my fear. My husband came
outside and we went in different directions and I found her on the next
street dressed in her halloween costume.
She had been in the midst of thick fantasy play and leaving the house
was part of that. Until that point I had no desire to ever reveal to
her that there are people who aren't so nice. But after that I thought
that a little bit of fear/caution probably wouldn't be such a bad thing.
I spoke with my pediatrician later that day who agreed that explaining
that there are some bad people and here's how you can stay safe lecture
was ok for someone that age (minus grizzly details.)
I realized that I try so hard to make the world a beautiful place for my
child so she has no fear. But maybe a little fear helps you want to be
safe. Obviously giving them the tools to stay safe is an important
empowering component of that. I've noticed now when we are out and she
starts to wander I tell her I need to see her at all times and she
listens really well, when before she didn't really take me seriously --
probably because she didn't understand why.
She hasn't left the house again -- but I attribute that in large part to
the 10 cent eye hook locks we have 6' off the ground on all doors, which
I highly recommend to all parents of small children who are tall enough
to reach the door handle/lock! This should be part of anyone's
childproofing project. I did the same thing that my daughter did at her
age and I wasn't found for over
just my 10 cents
My husband had a great response to this issue in our family. My mother
often took care of my son and would be very fearful about his
approaching or saying ''Hi'' to strangers. In an attempt to keep him
safe she scared him about strangers and he stopped saying hi to people.
My husbands response was that we WANT to encourage our son to have easy
going and compotent social manners; introductions, saying hi and
introducing himself and his parents IF/WHEN he feels comfortable. What
we do is to watch him vigulantly and never let him out of our instant
protection and intervention. We feel it is our responsibility to protect
him. Relating to that, we never force any interaction (hugging, kissing,
talking) that he does not feel comfortable with. We always keep in mind
that children are more often molested by known adults.
So here's an example, I took my son to get a hair cut (not at Snippety
Crickets) and we had to wait for the lady to get finished with her
current client. When she was done she told us she was ready for us. I
really wanted my son to get his shaggy hair trimmed but he didn't want
to though he had waited patiently and I asked are you sure. Here's the
kicker, his intuition was right on. The lady was obviously not in a good
mood, seemed like she really didn't care to cut his hair and just seemed
irritated. So I talked to my son on the way out and said great decision
and talked about how she didn't seem to be too nice right now. That's
the type of listening to his inner voice we're trying to promote.
Does anyone have advice about how to talk to a very verbal four
year old about ''stranger safety''? I have just learned that
there have recently been two attempted child abuductions within
3 miles of my home involving a male attempting to entice
children into his car. I would like to begin talking with my
son about ''stranger danger'' and how to protect himself, but am
unsure about how to go about this. I do not want to alarm him
unnecessarily (he's very sensitive) but feel it is time to
address the issue. Any advice would be welcome!
Some years ago I went to a Kidpower training. They recommended
that you tell your child to never go with anyone, stranger or
known person, without asking you. For my son at that age, who is
also very sensitive, that was a rule that made a lot of sense to
him, and it did not alarm him at all.
Run, don't walk, to the bookstore and get ''Protecting the Gift''
by Gavin de Becker.
Last year before we went to Disneyland I was concerned about
how my son, then 4, would handle possibly getting separated
from us in such a large place - which naturally brought up the
issue of strangers & who is safe to go to for help. We enrolled
in one of the parent/child Kidpower classes (one time for 2
hours) it was very helpful. They do a great job of helping
parents define who a stranger is & what kind of family safety
rules you can make without scaring the beans out of your little
one. We continued to find the information they taught to be
very useful. Goodluck
I'm sure I won't be the only one to recommend KidPower. They do
these little seminars for kids (and parents), teaching the kids
how to be safe in the world without freaking them out.
Neighborhood Parents Network just sponsored a workshop recently
for KidPower, and probably more will be coming up in the future,
but I think they also have a website. You could try googling
Kidpower. Hope that helps.
Kidpower offers a class for young children:
I took the Full power (adult) class and thought it was great.
I don't think it's necessary to talk to any child about stranger safety until
that child is likely to be in a situation where he/she is not supervised by
an adult. Why would your 4-year-old need this information? Is he going
to be walking to/from school alone? Or playing out in the yard by
himself? I think we have a false sense of security when we think that by
talking to children of this age about stranger danger we are keeping
them safe. I think this is more an issue about supervision than about
teaching a child of this age to be fearful of strangers. In reality, more
children are abducted/abused by people they know, than by strangers.
How, in reality, could a 4-year-old protect himself from an adult who
wanted to harm him? I think that's being really naive, and expecting
much more of a child than is reasonable.
Read ''Protecting the Gift'' by Gavin de Becker. Very smart, very eye-
opening. He brings up all kinds of great issues I'd never thought of --
like maybe that, when a kid gets lost, they shouldn't be looking for a
policeman (maybe they won't find one, maybe they'll confuse security
guards -- statistically not a good bet -- with policemen....); maybe they
should go to a woman with children for help (statistically the least likely
to harm a child).
I have three kids and have gone through this too. A couple
things I found helpful: like anything else you teach your child
- manners, reading, talking, etc - mention it casually and
often. Don't have the BIG safety talk and scare the willies
out of them. As you go through your daily life look for small
opportunities to teach them on an ongoing basis. Go
through scenarios - starting with things like ''What would you
do if someone asked you to help them find their puppy?''
Then tell them that grown-ups ask grown-ups for help - not
children. Then a few days later role play that scenario with
them. I did this for talking to people who call out from their
cars, touching private parts, etc. I still do it. While I don't
want to scare them I want them to have at least had the
inkling this could happen than be totally taken off guard.
Also give them permission to scream, hit, kick, and bite if
ANYONE touches them who shouldn't. Better to apologize
later than be sorry.
Lastly for certain hard and fast rules, like don't open the door
for anyone if Mommy or Daddy is not available, I would then
ask them ''What if so-and-so (say the friendly neighbor)
came?'' And the answer is always no. Make the exceptions
clear - like Grandma or whomever.
Also, 4 is old enough to learn to dial 9-1-1. Make sure you
teach them NOT to hang up after they call - operator needs
to trace address.
I suspect you will hear this from others, too. Most abductions
are NOT by strangers, but by familiar adults, so don't stress the
''Stranger Danger'' aspect (after all, if you are really in
trouble, most strangers will help!) At four, your child should
still be closely supervised at all times, and as you said, you
don't really want him to be afraid of people. But as you start
preparing him for a little more independence, make it clear that
he is to go with NO ONE, take food from NO ONE, approach NO ONE
at all - stranger or not, even his best friend's mom - without
checking with you (or whichever adult you have designated as
''incharge'') first. (If you truly trust some other adults, you can
later specify which those are - but for now, NO ONE else should
be expecting your child to do what they say). He should learn
this phrase: ''I have to check'', as he runs to find his in-charge
adult. He should also be taught that adults NEVER need help from
kids (for directions, finding a lost pet, etc.), and NEVER have
the right to make kids do things that don't feel right; so he
should not stop to listen to any questions, or go closer to hear
- just find his in-charge adult. KidPower is a great program for
learning these safety guidelines. They don't teach FEAR - but
readiness, and that your safety always comes first (before
inconvenience, embarrassment, etc.).
The way I handled this was never to even deal with what a ''stranger'' was, but to be
very firm about who my child could be with. It requires a lot less discretion to say
''you are not my Uncle Dave'' than... ''Gee, he doesn't LOOK dangerous....''
My kids could talk to anyone when their dad or I was with them, but the list of
people they could ''go'' with was never more than 3 or 4 names long -- anyone else
needs to put them on the phone with me first. Period. I think you'll find that this
reflects the system schools will use later -- a list of who IS ok, not a description of
who is not.
I was in a pet sotre recently and got a strange vibe off of
someone there and suddenly became aware of the fact that I
hadn't really had a concrete ''talk'' with my 3.5 year old twins
about strangers. They are old enough now to understand how to
take safety precautions now but I am not 100% sure how to
breech the subject without instilling fear in them that EVERY
stranger is a bad stranger. I never leave them unattended, but
there have been a couple of nervous seconds in a store or
public place where one of them moves out of my vision for a few
moments. I want them to have the ability to spot a potentially
dangerous situation and know how to deal with it.
Any advice would be appreciated
They are THE best at teaching safety without scaring thechild.
Very clear recommendations about how and what to say to your child. They
have local office and offer parent/ child workshops. Website is Kidpower.org
This is what we told our kids:
1)''These are the people you CAN go anywhere with. No one
else.'' (the list was short) - That kept them from having to
figure out too young what a ''stranger'' is.
2)''Its not enough that YOU know where you are - if I don't
know, you're lost.''
3)''If we are separated in public (you are lost), stop and look
around you. If you do not see us, look for a police officer. IF
you don't see a police officer walk into a store and tell the
person behind the counter.'' (This worked well at the Solano
Stroll. My daughter announced her problem to a person in
the Bone Room, and the lady behind her said, ''I know who
your mom is, you stay here while I go get her.'' Note: if she'd
said ''come with me and we'll find her'', that would be a NO-
And finally - 4) At Disneyland you can tell anyone in a
costume with a nametag that you are lost, and they will find
Hope it helps~!
I HIGHLY recommend trying to take a KidPower workshop. They
address specifically the issue you brought up, as well as giving
all kinds of other practical ideas for helping to keep your kids
safe. Their workshops are hands-on, fun and full of substance.
They have a website-- which is www.fullpower.org. You can get a
guidebook from the website, but I think taking the workshop
first makes it all make sense.
This might sound like strange advice, but it is what I have done
with all my kids. I encourage them to talk to strangers and I
guide them into developing a very loud inner voice.
I encourage them to listen to their inner voice about many
things, but wrt to ''strangers'' and known adults, this is what I do.
When *I* meet someone that I get a weird reaction to (my inner
voice speaking) I disucss that with my kids. I ask them how they
feel about specific people we know and meet. I guide them into
sorting their feelings and give absolute respect to their body
boundaries and inner voice. I never encourage physical contact
(yes, even with grandma and grandpa) unless they are comfortable
with it. When they get older (say 5, depending on the child)
I'll send them on little errands (''go ask that man what time it
is'') and then ask them how they felt about the person - what
vibes they got and if they felt they could trust the person or
I would highly recommend Kidpower http://www.kidpower.org to help
you develop body boundaries and give you and your child
stratigies to stay safe. Kidpower teaches safety that is
applicable to everyday familial situations and predator
situations equally - the context is kept in familial situations
so there is no need to ''scare'' the child of predator danger.
Read "Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe
(And Parents Sane)" by Gavin De Becker
this page was last updated: Oct 21, 2008
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