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How to talk to young children about “stranger danger”
To keep children safe but not, at the same time, teach them that the world is to be feared, we focus on developing the child’s own safety skills and we talk to them about who can help them.
To start, one thing that preschool children can clearly understand is that their “swimsuit area” is private. Then clearly list the people who can be “private area helpers” if she needs them—usually mom and dad, perhaps a grandparent, a trusted caregiver, the doctor when mom or dad is with her, etc.
The discussion of strangers is more complicated. Decades ago children were trained by their parents to find a policeman if they ever became separated in a crowd. Over time researchers have noted that preschool children will not distinguish one uniform from another so the UPS delivery person or cleaning staff can be confused with the uniforms of law enforcement. Because of this we now encourage children to find another mommy with children should they lose sight of a parent in a crowd or need help.
The other broader category of stranger danger is that of unrelated predators who may approach children at playgrounds for help finding a puppy, or offer treats to lure children close. Children need very concrete instructions:
- “Sometimes a grown-up might ask you to help find a puppy or other pet. If anyone asks you, you run to find mom or dad as fast as you can.”
- “Sometimes a grown-up might want to share candy or treats with you and your friends while you’re playing. If anyone offers you treats run to find mom or dad as fast as you can.”
- “If a grown-up tells you that me or dad said it is okay, that grown-up is not telling the truth. Come find mom or dad as fast as you can.”
If your daughter asks why or if you feel you need to tell her why but at the same time do not want to scare her (the crux of the dilemma for parents of young children):
- “All grown-ups know the rule that they need to ask parents before they can give kids a treat or ask kids for help. All grown-ups also know that kids have to go to their parents to ask, too. Grown-ups that do not follow these rules may not be safe.”
The larger risk to children are family and friends who have easy access through their trusted status.
For all circumstances teaching children about…
- “good touch” — patting the kitty, kissing baby brother
- “bad touch” — being pushed or hit
- “touch that has you worried or confused” — any kind of touch or attention that makes you feel mixed up inside
…will give you and your children a context for describing their experiences and understanding when and how to seek help.
As your child grows and gains more independence you will continue to share skills and information, adjusting for age-appropriateness.
Of course, with young children sharing information is never a substitute for your watchful eye and attention, or that of a trusted caregiver.
A good source for expanded articles and tips for teaching about stranger danger can be found at the web site of The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children: www.missingkids.com.
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