Strangers Among Us: How to Talk to Young Kids about “Stranger Danger”

Posted October 15, 2010 by

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The worst moment of my life was the two minutes when I thought my son E had disappeared forever in the depths of FAO Schwarz (the one where the piano scene from “Big” was filmed). This was a couple of years ago, but it still gives me a panicky feeling whenever I think about all the things that could have happened. Thankfully, he went back to the spot he originally left and didn’t get why I was so upset. He was almost three years old at the time.

After that awful moment in time, I decided to teach E our first names, our last name, and anything else he’d need to know if he ever got lost again. I’ve also been teaching him about the dangers of talking to strangers. I’m sure it’s hard for him to differentiate who is a stranger when he sees me talking to new people all the time. I remember being a kid and telling my parents not to talk to strangers, although they knew the people while I did not. I am still working on this concept with him and plan to teach it to my younger son, as well.

Recently, I saw the movie version of “The Lovely Bones.” It involves a young girl who is murdered by a neighbor. It was someone she had seen her parents talking to, so she felt it was safe to go off with him. That’s another important concept to teach when discussing stranger danger. Kids should not go anywhere with another adult, even if that adult is familiar, unless they ask their parents first. I would never authorize my kids to go someplace with an acquaintance. It’s one thing if they were playing at a friend’s house and I didn’t completely know the friend’s parents. It’s another to just let my kids go someplace with another adult when no other kids are around. It’s a scary world that we are living in and we need to do everything we can to educate and protect our children from predators.

I think it’s important to teach our children that if they become separated from us in the store, they should seek help from an employee, not someone just randomly shopping there. If an acquaintance offers them a ride home from school, they should know to refuse the offer, regardless of what tactics the person uses (offering candy, saying they had permission, etc.).

Has your child ever gotten lost? What tactics have you used to teach your kids about stranger danger and what to do when they get lost?

About

Melissa A. and her husband have 2 young sons, E and M, and a new baby daughter. Melissa's son E has hearing loss and wears a cochlear implant. Melissa works as an administrative assistant for a non-profit and also runs a bullying prevention group and a book-related fan group, in addition to blogging for Empowering Parents. You can check out Melissa’s personal blog here.

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  1. Dani (Edit) Report

    Whenever I go somewhere with my son, we decide on a ‘lost spot’ when we first arrive (when he was little, I used to tell him it was in case I got lost). I usually let him choose it – and we decide on an easy place to locate (big slide at a fair, McDonalds in the shopping mall etc). Because he has chosen the place, it’s easier for him to remember. That way, he can always ask someone for directions to the ‘lost spot’ if he is unable to find it. It helps him to feel safe, and I know where to find him if we get separated.

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  2. Gatsby (Edit) Report

    I second and highly recommend “protecting the gift.” The gift the title refers to is the gut feeling we get when someone or a situation is not quite right. He actually recommends that we *not* teach our children that strangers are inherently dangerous and that people we know are safe. Most of the abuse that happens to children is from people they know. Also, he recommends finding a mother with young children to help when a child is lost. He points out that most young children can’t tell an employee from a shopper or a policeman from the store security guard (and security guards are rarely hired for their people skills or empathy). He points out that your child could wander around for a long time before finding a policeman standing around and that honestly, mothers are more likely to have the time and the emotional drive to help a lost child. His book was incredibly eye-opening for me and completely changed the way I talk to my son about safety and about people.

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  3. bds (Edit) Report

    The ‘look for a mommy or daddy WITH kids’ is a good one.
    I taught my children and any child who went out with me and/or our children ‘If you get lost, don’t leave the store. Don’t go outside.” We practiced before we went inside.

    It’s difficult now to rescue a lost child.
    It used to be o.k. to take the child’s hand and go look together for his/her parent. That’s not acceptable anymore. My adult daughters and I watched a child who had been allowed to wander in a department store food court restaurant. We went in different directions looking for a ‘lost parent’ and finally found an older sister who was frantically looking. The mother was too busy and the crowd was not alarmed. I’d like to know what other people do.

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  4. Iowa Mom (Edit) Report

    A fantastic book to help parents protect and teach their children about strangers and public dangers is “Protecting the Gift” by Gavin de Becker, an expert on safety. An important, but counterintuitive, tip I learned from his book is that security personnel at malls and public places are NOT the safest people for a lost child to go to for help. The best thing to teach your child is to find another Mommy with her kids and ask her for help.

    I agree with the others who posted – constant conversation with your children to reinforce safety habits is the best line of defense.

    Reply
  5. Mom (Edit) Report

    Whenever we go to a zoo or amusement park, we (my husband or I) place one of OUR cards with only our name (not our son’s name) and cell phone number on it. Our son knows if we are ever separated, he is to look for a mommy with children or a daddy with children and ask them if they are a mommy or daddy. If they say yes, then he is to ask them to help him find his mommy/daddy by calling our cell phones. Now that he is 4, we’ll add people that work at the park too……but as a little one, he understood mommy and daddy better. The above posts are helpful, thanks.

    Reply
  6. Elinor (Edit) Report

    I can not tell you how important it is to know the person with your child very well. I remember when I was a child, I was sent home ill from school. In that day and age, it was necessary for me to take a bus home. A neighbor stopped and offered me a ride home, but I refused to go with him. He told my parents that I refused his ride, and they were very upset with me. Several years later, the same man picked up another neighbor child, and that child was abused. My “funny feeling” might have drawn my parent’s ire, but it kept me safe. They trusted the man because he was a neighbor.

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  7. Been There (Edit) Report

    Tell your child to NEVER open the home door to ANYONE he doesn’t know or if he has a “funny feeling” about what someone wants. He can say, “I’m not allowed. You must go to a neighbor adult or call here on the phone.” This applies to any “authority figure” or “professional”.

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  8. Been There (Edit) Report

    Nowadays we have realized that since the majority of molestations and kidnappings occur by someone the child knows, we don’t refer to “stranger danger”. Besides, kids have a very specific definition of “stranger”. We focus on any person or behavior that “doesn’t feel right” and “gut feelings”. We tell kids to remove themselves from the situation and tell a trusted adult. Then parents can take the appropriate action.

    Reply
  9. Lynn (Edit) Report

    VERY important to emphasize that they should ask for help from an EMPLOYEE or other official person if they ever find themselves separated from you at a store or other public place. Policemen are the best people to ask for help, but if there is no official “safe” person, explain to them that the people who are working in public places are going to be most likely to help them and least likely to try to take them anywhere else. Make sure your children know that they need to ask someone to call their parents, not ask someone to take them home or anywhere else… be clear about the fact that they should NOT go with anyone, they should ask for help to call or contact you so that you can come and get them. And if your kids do NOT have their/your contact information memorized, make a card with that information and put it in their pocket, and tell them to use it!

    Reply
  10. Laura Rachel Fox (Edit) Report

    Thanks for sharing your experience and some great ways to teach our kids about stranger danger.

    It can be hard sometimes when your children see other parents who are not so vigilant. My 10-year-old son often asks why he can’t play across the street. He sees his younger friends given more freedom to roam our not-so-safe neighborhood and feels like we treat him like a baby. I try to explain that we are just trying to protect him.

    What has worked best for us is to use the all too frequent news stories as teachable moments. We’ve also had lengthy talks about what to do if a stranger does try to grab you and take you. We’ve explained the importance of doing everything he can to get away before a stranger gets him in a car or in a door. One of the best tips I’ve heard is for a child to crawl under a parked vehicle if they are in a lot.

    We also enrolled our son in a self-defense course based on Karate. He learned to break holds and to shout the phrase “you’re not my parent!”

    Reply
  11. Brittany Roshelle (Edit) Report

    I agree 100%. It’s so important to each children about the dangers of strangers. I’m glad your article pointed out how confusing it is to children what the difference is between different types of strangers and how complex that definition can be.

    My mom was very protective of my siblings and I. At the store, we always had to keep one hand on the cart at all times so we didn’t walk away–which was a great idea. I think teaching the first and last names is quite important as well as a phone number. We live in a big and sometimes, scary world today! That’s wonderful that you’re educating them in stranger safety, it’s never to early!

    Reply

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