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How do I teach my child to be smart about strangers?

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“Don't talk to strangers.” Those are four little warning words that parents and caregivers have given to children for generations. Unfortunately, we do have to teach our little ones that there are people in this world who won’t always have their best interests in mind. At the same time, there are some instances where talking to a stranger can actually help a child who may be lost, in need of guidance or even as a way to simply help them learn to make conversations with new people. But how do we teach a child to know the difference between a good stranger or someone who may cause them danger?

Teaching Your Child About Strangers

First of all, parents and caregivers can give a child examples of when it’s appropriate to talk to a stranger and when it is not. If a child is in the direct supervision and watchful eye of a parent or other adult caregiver, it’s perfectly fine for a child to strike up a conversation. Doing so can teach a child how to make a new friend or to simply be outgoing and conversational.

But if a child is alone when an adult approaches them—whether it’s in their front yard or walking home from school or any other similar situation—that’s when things could be more dangerous. In such a scenario, a child should be instructed to be on guard and to never accept a car ride, a toy or candy from someone they do not know. Also, instruct a child that a stranger could try and trick them with something that seems innocent —such as a stranger asking a child if he or she has seen their lost dog or cat—only to lure them away. Parents and caregivers should be prepared to talk openly about situations like these and make sure that the child understands that not all strangers are nice.

Tips to Consider

Role play: You can prepare your child to deal with strangers by asking questions like, “What would you do if an adult you don’t know offers you candy or asks for your help to find a lost puppy?” Because most young children are naturally trusting, their answer will probably be the opposite of what any parent or caregiver would like to hear. But tell your child that if an unknown adult approaches and asks for their help, teach them to say “No!” and walk or run away immediately. The child should be told to tell a parent, caregiver, or other trusted adult about what just happened. Children should also be told to inform a trusted adult if a stranger asks them to keep a secret, tries to touch them in a private area of if they are asked to touch someone else’s private area. Bottom line is that a child should be told to never go anywhere with anyone at any time without asking for the permission of their parent or caregiver. For children as young as kindergarteners, the best safety rules are taught through repetition and role play. But remember to make the role play casual and fun but in an educational way—where a child will learn the lesson without becoming too frightened.

Looks can be deceiving: Most children would most likely stay away from a stranger if they were mean looking or appeared scary in their dress or mannerisms. But the fact of the matter is that most strangers who would do harm to a child look and act like regular looking people that a child may encounter anytime (including people dressed up as authority figures or someone offering a toy or puppy). So instead of warning a child to judge a stranger on their appearance, teach them to make their judgement on how a stranger behaves. Again, when a stranger—no matter how pleasant looking or friendly they may seem—asks a child to walk away with them, or to do something they know is wrong—make sure the child walks away immediately and tells a trusted adult what just happened.

Trusting their instincts: Experts also recommend teaching a child to trust his or her gut and to be aware if they feel a stranger might be up to no good. The same lesson also goes for familiar people that a child may encounter—especially since most sexual abuse of children is done by an adult whom a child already knows. And, again, teach a child to walk away from someone if they have an “uh oh” feeling that something is not right and seek help from a trusted adult.

Stranger exceptions: As stated earlier, there are some situations where a child will need to approach a stranger for help, such as if the child gets lost from a trusted adult when they are in a public space. If the child is in a store, teach him or her to find someone who works at the store, such as a cashier or security guard. If there are no employees or uniformed people in view, teach the child to seek out grandparents or people with children who may be able to help. But even then, teach the child to not let their guard down even in these circumstances and if they feel uneasy or don’t have a good feeling about the person they have asked for help, they should seek out someone else immediately.  

Remember that as an adult or caregiver, it’s impossible to protect a child from strangers all of the time. But by teaching kids to be smart about strangers, to notice behavior that does not seem “right” and to seek out help when there may be a danger, you can help prepare your child to stay as safe as possible.

By ABC Quality Team on November 17, 2020