“Mommy, you tell me when you see a bad stranger, okay?”
I laughed a little when I was 2 yr. old Jada said this to me one day while we were at the grocery store. I had just started warning my precious little girl about “mean” people in this world. If only we could simply look at somebody and know if they were good or not.
Simple, innocent thinking like this from a child is precisely why it is so critical that we warn them of the dangers in this world, and the evil people in it.
I urge you, dear mothers and fathers, if you haven’t done it yet, don’t put it off any longer.
When Should I Teach My Child About Stranger Danger?
Start as early as possible – while it might not be possible (or necessarily wise) to teach your infant or toddler about the dangers of stranger danger when they’re already in the throes of separation anxiety, it’s something you can start as soon as your child is old enough to understand.
At the very latest, make sure you start having conversations with your child when he enters school, either as a preschooler or kindergartener.
Remind your child that adults don’t need kids’ help with certain things – like finding a puppy. Kids innately want to be helpful – that’s something we love about them, after all!
However, it’s important that kids realize that this is not a logical task, and that they should never take gifts from strangers, either.
They also need to understand that strangers are anybody who might be unfamiliar to them – even people who seem friendly. They should not be forced to interact with people with whom they are comfortable with yet.
In addition to teaching your child tips for interacting with stranger in public, make sure your child has plans and guidelines in place for being home (and being home alone) such as how to answer (or not answer) the door or phone.
“Stranger Danger”: Tips for Teaching Your Children to Be Safe With Others
Your children need to know how to protect themselves from those who are out to harm them. Don’t be afraid that you might scare your child, or worry him. It is time that you arm him/her with life saving knowledge using these practical tips.
1. Have a Heart to Heart
This needs to be a sit down, face-to-face, serious conversation. A casual mention of strangers will not suffice.
Your child’s age will determine the tone of the conversation, and how deep you get with it. I would suggest starting at age 2 ½-3 yrs. old, depending on their maturity level. This is how I would go about it:
“Baby, I want to talk to you about strangers. Do you know what a stranger is? A stranger is somebody who you do not know well. Now, there are lots of people in this world who are strangers to us, we do not know them, and some are good, and some are bad.
Most people are good, but there are some people out there who are bad. Bad strangers will try to hurt you. Sometimes bad strangers try to take children away, and keep them and do bad things to them. I want to tell you about bad strangers to teach you to be careful around people who you do not know.
Bad strangers don’t always look mean. Sometimes they act very nice. You can’t tell if they are good or bad just by looking at them. Bad strangers are tricky! They will act nice to you, but they are really mean. Sometimes they will try to trick you to get you to go with them. It is very important that you stay close to Mommy or Daddy while we are out, so that you don’t get lost from us. If you do get lost, you need to find a store worker, or a police officer right away and ask for help.”
2. Role Play
This is where you give your child some scenarios of what a “bad” stranger might try to do to get your child to go with them. It is really important to equip your child with the right responses for certain situations, and there is no better way to teach them than through practice and role-playing.
It’s just pretend now, but if it ever happened in real life, they would be able to recall their practiced responses. Do this often to keep it fresh in their minds.
Here’s an example of the conversation I had with my children:
“Now, remember, bad strangers will try to trick children. They want to get you away from your Mommy and Daddy so they can take you. They might act really nice to you and say something like, “Hello little girl. What’s your name? Do you like candy? You do! Well, I have some in my car, you want to come and get some candy?”
Let me tell you something… you should never talk to strangers unless you are with a grown-up who you know. You should never take candy from a stranger, unless your Mommy or Daddy says it’s okay first.
And you should never, EVER go to the car of a stranger! This is their trick! If they can get you to their car, they will put you in it and drive away. I may never see you again! Now, let’s practice what you should do if a stranger comes to you.”
Here is where you role-play. Make up a few scenarios to lead your child through. Don’t act creepy. Don’t put on a mask or try to make yourself look mean or different. Strangers look like everybody else, your child needs to know that. Pretend to walk up to your child, and begin a conversation:
You: “Hello. What’s your name?”
Child: “My name is Sarah.”
You: “Hi Sarah.” “How old are you?”
Child: “I’m three.”
You: “Oh! Wow, you’re a big girl!” “Well, Sarah, would you like some candy?”
Stop!! This is where you correct your child. Tell them again how they should never take candy from a stranger. Give them the correct response:
Child: “I have to ask my Mommy or Daddy first.”
Now begin another scenario.
You: “Hi little girl. Do you like puppies?”
You: “Well, I have the cutest little puppy in my car. Would you like to see him?”
Obviously, this is another big stopping point! Tell your child that if somebody invites them to his/her car, they should never go alone. Give your child the correct response:
Child: “I have to ask my Mommy or Daddy first.”
Become a little more aggressive in your approach as a stranger.
You: “Oh, come on! He’s really cute! I’m sure your Mommy wouldn’t mind. We’ll be right back!”
Child: “No thank you. I have to ask my Mommy first.”
Now, without acting it out (you don’t want to scare your child), talk to them about the possibility of a stranger trying to grab them and forcibly take them away. Tell them that sometimes bad strangers will pick a child up and try to take them.
“Sometimes a bad stranger will try to take you away by picking you up, or grabbing your arm and forcing you to go with them. Do you know what you should do if that happens?
If somebody tries to take you away from me, I want you to fight them with all of your strength! Do you understand me? You kick, you scream, you yell “Mommy!!”, you hit, bite, and fight as hard as you can to get away.
Do not let them get you to their car. If they get you into their car, I may never see you again. And baby, if I lost you my heart would break! I would cry and cry. I don’t want to lose you, so I need to teach you what to do if a bad stranger tries to get you, okay?
Now remember, most strangers are good. But there are some bad people out there who want to do harm. The best way to keep safe is to stay close to me always, never run off or get too far from me. If you aren’t close, a bad stranger could grab you and run away with you. And if you get lost in the store, you find a worker to help you. Never, ever go with somebody out of the store. Okay?”
Make sure that you practice and talk about this often. Make up different situations to better equip your child. What you teach him has the potential to save his life! Some other scenarios you can practice:
“Can you help me look for my lost puppy?”
“Your Mommy told me to come and get you.”
“Would you like to make a little money helping me?”
“Your Mommy is out in the car. Come, I’ll bring you to her.”
Talk to your child about what his/her reaction should be for each circumstance. And I can’t say it enough, practice, practice, practice.
Don’t let your child forget this very important lesson. Remind them often when you are home and in public.
I have to warn though, this should not be used as a behavior tool. If your child is misbehaving, and wandering off, don’t threaten him that a stranger is going to take him away. This is an issue of disobedience that requires disciplinary action.
Teaching your child about “Stranger Danger” is a life lesson, not a disciplining method, so don’t confuse the two. You wouldn’t want your child to take this warning light-heartedly.
3. Offer Question and Answer Time
Ask your child if they have any questions, and answer them the best that you can. Next, take your turn asking questions. Quiz them about what they are going to do in different situations.
Reinforce what you have just discussed. And make sure to give lots of praise for correct answers! Encourage your child, and give him confidence in knowing that now he is able to better protect himself if suddenly found in a compromising situation.
4. Start Early, Do it Often, and Be Clear
When it comes to teaching your child about stranger danger, you really can’t start too soon. You need to repeat your teachings often and be clear:
“Don’t go with anyone unless you come and ask me first” or “I will tell you ahead of time if you need to go with someone other than me.”
Leave no room for misunderstanding – this is the most important part.
Kids have great intuition, yet so many times we brush off this intuition as separation anxiety, clinginess, or some other aspect of their development.
Be sure to communicate with your kid about times in which they’ve felt off, strange, or uncomfortable – especially around certain people.
If your child seems to get anxious or fearful in certain situations, have a conversation with him later about why that is the case. Often, this might reveal certain situations that need to be avoided for your child’s safety.
You can also have conversations about “tricky people.” This is perhaps the nicest way to teach your child about stranger danger without hurting anyone’s feelings.
To be clear, these are people you might see regularly – people your kids actually know – but people whom you want them to be careful around.
They might be family members with mental illnesses that make their behavior unpredictable or dangerous or the neighbor down the street that you have a bad feeling about because of how he or she behaves.
You can explain to your child that some people aren’t necessarily strangers but they are tricky – they might have problems that make them not so good. As your kids get older, you can explain to them how they should be around these people in order to stay safe.
The big problem with stranger danger is, of course, the fact that most crimes that are committed against children, such as sexual abuse, aren’t committed by strangers. They’re perpetrated by people your child knows – like friends, family members, coaches, or teachers.
When you teach stranger danger, you’re missing an entire subset of people. Therefore, it’s important to teach your child about consent, appropriate interactions with adults, and other crucial elements of personal safety instead of just stranger danger.
Make sure your children understand that no one is allowed to touch their body in ways that make them uncomfortable – especially in what we like to call the “bathing suit areas.”
This can make doctor’s appointments a bit trickier, but a way around this is to make sure the doctor explains what he is doing to give more meaning to the exam.
Many pediatricians will make a note to mention to your child that he or she is the boss, too, making these situations go a bit more smoothly.
Another way to help your child be prepared for interactions (potentially dangerous ones) with strangers is to give him a “checklist” of sorts of things that he can do when he feels uncomfortable around strangers.
For example, the first step could be to loudly say “no!” with the second being to run away. The third is to find a trusted adult, like a mom who has kids with her, a police officer, or a store worker.
This one is perhaps the trickiest area to deal with, particularly in the digital age when the biggest threat to your child’s safety isn’t necessarily the stranger lurking down the street but the one behind the computer’s screen.
Make sure you instill digital safety once your child is old enough to use a computer or smartphone, too. Teach kids what’s appropriate and inappropriate online – even when it feels like just about anything is allowed.
Create and instill firm boundaries where technology is concerned – and do everything you can to educate yourself about online predators, too.
Especially as your child gets older, it’s important to keep an open dialogue about staying safe online.
As we’ve mentioned earlier, stranger danger isn’t the only concept you need to teach when it comes to your child’s safety. Again, 93% of sexual abuse cases against children are committed by someone he or she knows – not by strangers.
Therefore you need to back your child up when he decides he is uncomfortable in a situation or doesn’t want to be touched. That could be in a tickle fight or in a hug from Grandpa – if your child isn’t comfortable and says no, don’t scold him.
If the response seems strange given the situation, you can always ask for more information from your child later on.
In situations where your child will be unsupervised, such as walking home from school, encourage him to set up a buddy system.
Is there a friend he can walk home with? Make sure that your friend is educated on the stranger danger system you use, too, so that way everyone can work together to stay safe.
This is something that you don’t necessarily need to teach our kids – but instead a tip for combating stranger danger that you should handle on your own.
Please, stop personalizing everything about your kids. That means lunch boxes, shirts, backpacks, etc.
The reason for this is that when strangers know your child’s name – even if your child doesn’t know the person – your kid is much more likely to trust them.
No matter how good you are at teaching your kid stranger danger tips, it’s a good idea to avoid these sorts of situations in the first place.
A code word is a great way to make sure your kids stay safe from strangers – while also safeguarding the situation in which you unexpectedly need to send someone else to pick up your child from school.
A code word should be something that’s not super common – you want something that your child will remember and recognize but also a word that is not too tricky to use naturally.
This code word can be used in several ways. For example, it can be used in the situation mentioned above, if your child is at a friend’s house and needs to be picked up early because they are uncomfortable or if you are together in public and there is a safety threat.
This one can be challenging with very young kids, but as your child gets older, there are a few other techniques you can try to keep them safe.
How often have you walked past a parent with a struggling child in their arms – and walked right past? Tantrums are common – that’s something that, as a parent, you know all too well.
Teach your child to scream, “who are you?” in a stranger danger situation. “Where are my mom and dad?” or “Leave me alone – I don’t know you!” are also good responses if someone tries to grab them.
If someone approaches your child on the street in a car, teach them to run in the opposite direction of the car – this will buy them some time as the car has to turn around.
In dire situations, make sure your child knows that it’s okay to scream, hit, and make a scene when they’re being targeted by a potential predator. This will help get the attention of passersby so your child can get away.
Be Prepared – Not Afraid
I hope that I have provided you with a good starting point to begin teaching your child about how to better protect him or her self. If you have a personal story about a “bad” stranger in your own life, or if there has been a recent news story about a child being kidnapped, don’t be afraid to share these with your child to better demonstrate the reality of this danger.
Here is a link to help you find some more “Stranger Danger” lesson plans and activities to do with your child.
*On a side note, I have also started telling my daughter that if she gets lost and can’t find a police officer or a (preferably female) store worker, she should find a mommy with children and tell her that she is lost. I have no doubt that another mother would protect my lost child like her own. I know that’s what I would do.
I am also suggesting that if she was ever being physically taken by a stranger, that she should not only fight with all her might but yell, “You’re not my Mommy (or Daddy)!” so that people don’t mistake her for an unruly child simply misbehaving.
I’d love to hear any suggestions or personal stories about how you have talked with your children about this subject!
Rebekah is a high-school English teacher n New York, where she lives on a 22 acre homestead. She raises and grows chickens, bees, and veggies such as zucchini (among other things).