Teaching Your Kids about Stranger Danger
My daughter was nine when she joined our family through adoption. While we were at the park one day, I glanced up and was surprised to see her sitting on top of the monkey bars with a lollipop in her mouth. We didn’t bring any lollipops so I walked over and asked her about it.
She pointed to a lady over by the swings. Sure enough, this woman was walking around the playground handing out lollipops to the children. The woman didn’t appear to have any children of her own with her and I asked my daughter why she took candy from a stranger.
She looked back at me with total confusion. She said, “I took a red one, but she had blue ones, too.” I explained that the color of the lollipop wasn’t the issue. Then, it hit me. I realized that no one had ever explained to my daughter that it was not okay to take candy from strangers. Such a simple lesson, one that most children have drilled into their heads from a very young age, had somehow eluded my daughter.
No matter their age, teaching children to be cautious of strangers is a tricky task. You want them to understand that some people aren’t safe. However, you don’t want them to run screaming, “STRANGER DANGER!!! STRANGER DANGER!!!” any time a sweet elderly lady smiles at them in the grocery store. It’s a delicate balance to find.
Here are some tips for building awareness without terror.
- Explain what “stranger” means. Don’t take it for granted that they know. You might say, “A stranger is someone that you don’t know.” Then point out examples, such as, “You know Grandma. She’s not a stranger. See that man walking his puppy over there? He looks like a nice man and he has a cute little puppy, but we don’t know him, so he’s a stranger.”
- Illustrate some of the common ploys strangers use to entice children. Explain that an adult should always ask other adults for help and never children. Tell them that you will never send a stranger to pick them up and it is not okay to accept any items from a stranger if you aren’t with them. Consider instituting a family password. Instruct your children to ask for the password from anyone unexpectedly picking them up.
- Use books and cartoons to help you explain the concept of strangers to young children. Your library or local bookstore should have a wide selection of material on the topic. A few options with characters your children may recognize include:
- The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers by Stan and Jan Berenstain (available in both book and DVD)
- Expand on the reasons when it’s age appropriate. As children get older, it’s okay to explain some of reasons why you have these rules. Children naturally start to push the boundaries and explore on their own. I explained to my daughter that sometimes strangers trick kids into thinking they are nice so they can hurt them. She needed this information to understand why taking a free lollipop from a nice lady isn’t a good idea.
- Don’t overwhelm them with information. Dial it down if your child starts to look frightened. Give them hugs and reassurance and approach the topic from a different angle another time.
- Tell them when it is okay to talk to strangers. It’s fine for your children to feel comfortable talking to strangers when you’re with them. You will let them know which strangers are safe to talk to, such as doctors and dentists. Explain that it’s okay to talk to a new teacher or babysitter even after you leave.
- Identify “safe” strangers. Let them know that people in uniform are there to help them. Instruct them to look for police officers, firefighters and store clerks if they get separated from you.
- Teach them to trust their instincts. If someone makes them feel scared or uncomfortable, they should get away and look for a safe person to help them. It’s important to trust their feelings. Tell them they don’t need to worry about being polite or using good manners if a stranger approaches them when you are not around.
- Talk about what to do if a stranger tries to take them. The plan might include kicking, screaming and running towards other grownups, especially those in uniform. Make sure they understand that most strangers don’t try to hurt children, but it’s important to know what to do just in case.
- Revisit the subject from time to time. It’s important to give little reminders from regularly as children grown and mature.
Don’t stop keeping tabs on your children and hammering in safety tips. A blanket statement of, “Don’t talk to strangers” simply isn’t enough. Keep the conversations going even if you have teenagers. Expand the conversation to people who try to contact them through text messages and social network sites. Children of all ages need to know how to stay safe.
Rachael Moshman is a lifelong Florida resident, but hates the heat. She holds a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's degree in education with focuses in early childhood, infant/toddler development and special needs. She is a freelance writer and college instructor. Her greatest accomplishment is becoming the last mom to an amazing little girl through foster care adoption. In addition to her husband and daughter, she lives with two cats and a mannequin named Vivian. She is a magazine junky, owns too many shoes and collects tons of recipes that she never attempts to make.