Teaching Our Children About Stranger Danger

By Joan Grayson Cohen, LCSW-C, Esq.
Access Services
Jewish Community Services

When growing up, how many of us heard “Don’t talk to strangers or “Don’t accept candy from strangers.” Does that advice still apply today? If so, what meaning does it have for our children?   What are the specific dangers that we need to be talking to our kids about?

“Don’t talk to strangers” seemed to cover danger when I was growing up. I felt that if I abided by this rule I was safe. I had to have my Halloween candy checked by my parents before I indulged in those treats, but there wasn’t a lot more that I had to worry about.

We very rarely heard of missing children or children being harmed by strangers. Internet dangers were an unknown threat. (I have to admit it; we didn’t even have personal computers when I was a child.)  So when raising my own children, I had to expand my knowledge on what dangers to teach them about and what tools I had to arm them with to keep themselves safe.

When our children are younger, we can protect them more easily because we have control over who they are with and where they go. But, we still need to begin “stranger danger” and other safety conversations at an early age.

As our children venture out into the world, they find themselves in situations where they will need to make decisions about safety on their own. Different stages bring on new challenges.   Elementary school children need to learn not to go with strangers. Middle schoolers should be aware of what to say to a caller. They should not answer the door when they are at home alone. Because predators on the internet present a new kind of “stranger danger,” children need to learn about internet safety.

I am not trying to scare you, but rather to encourage parents to initiate conversations about safety with their children in order to prepare and protect them.

The key is to find the balance. If we alarm or scare our children, we are just creating anxiety.  Instead, we need to arm them with the awareness and the strategies to prepare them to keep themselves safe as they are growing up. Understand what information will be helpful to have at a certain age and share that when youngsters are about to encounter new experiences and environments.

This is not a one-time conversation, but many conversations that must take place as a child develops. Each discussion reinforces the earlier ones, while adding more information as the child can understand it. Then they can pull out the information when it is needed, almost like hearing an inner voice saying what to do in a particular situation.

Here are some tips:

  • Know your child and determine how much information is sufficient to give him about important safety issues so as not to cause unnecessary alarm.
  • Give your child specific examples so that if he encounters that scenario, he will know what to do. For example, is it OK to respond to a stranger who asks, “What’s your name?” in a store when you are with Mommy, but not when you are by yourself?
  • Role -play a situation so your child can practice how to react. For example, how would your child know if it was safe to go with an adult who tells him, “Your mother sent me to get you?” Role-play how your child should answer the phone when parents are out. What would you tell your child to say when the caller asks, “When will your parents be back?”

By giving our children information and tools, we create a safe place where they are able to ask questions and learn strategies to protect themselves.

However, we all know that there are times when, despite a parent’s and a child’s best efforts, a child could fall victim to danger. If something should happen, having developed good lines of communication and trust with our children will enable them to tell us about a troubling experience.

Our job as parents is to find the balance: without frightening our children. We need to teach them to be savvy and to exercise a healthy caution in order to navigate safely in the world.

Check out these websites with some of the new tricks predators are using:

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