Stranger Safety: How to Protect without Scaring

As parents, one of our primary roles is to keep our kids safe from harm. Unfortunately, it also means keeping our children safe from other people that may intend to harm them.
In the past, the typical phrase for teaching kids about personal safety was “Stranger Danger.” Teaching children “Stranger Danger” is an oversimplified approach that has big drawbacks:

  • Children may become overly fearful of everyone they don’t know instead of preparing them to evaluate a situation and make decisions. Instead, the recommended approach is to teach children how to decide who to approach if they are lost or in danger.
  • It assumes that all people that are not strangers are safe people. Unfortunately, most children are abducted by people known to them. For example, of the abductions in 2017, 2,359 children under the age of 18 were abducted by a non-custodial parent; during the same year, just 326 were abducted by a stranger. Similarly, 90 percent of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are known to the child, about 30 percent of them family members.

Fortunately, information is available to help parents teach their kids, tweens and teens how to navigate interactions with strangers—and how to stay safe, in general.

  • Have a “Going Out Checklist” to plan outings and prevent your kids from getting lost. Three examples: 1) Identify safe adults; 2) pay attention to your child’s clothes; and 3) plan for bathroom breaks.
  • Teach your kids that they decide how and when it is OK for other people to touch them. Be a good role model by demonstrating healthy ways of interacting with others. Helping your child develop healthy boundaries will help them stay safe, regardless of whether they are interacting with family members, acquaintances, or strangers.
  • Make your conversations with your children appropriate for their age and their situation. People unknown to the child use different tactics depending on age:
    • While force is often used, it’s more likely to be used to abduct children under the age of five and teens.
    • The strategy more often used with elementary and middle school-aged children is manipulation.
  • Help children understand the tricks to avoid. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports attempted abductors use different types of tricks, such as offering the child a ride, showing them an animal or asking questions. Offering rides was the most common.
  • Identify different tools your kids can use to get away from a stranger if they feel uncomfortable or threatened. Recommendations include:
    • Run to a trusted adult such as a parent with children, a store clerk, or a public safety officer.
    • Scream or make noise.
    • Fight back
  • Use real life and made-up situations to practice how to respond, such as what to do if a person drives up and makes an offer or asks a question.

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