Just the very thought of teaching stranger danger ignites panic for most parents of young children. As adults, we know too much. We know, for example, that while we want to find the good in people…some people just aren’t that good.
Children come in contact with strangers every day. They see them at the park, they see them at the grocery store, they even see them at school drop off and pick up. When you really stop to think about it, children are surrounded by strangers.
Not all strangers are bad, but not all strangers are good either.
Many preschoolers become acutely aware of strangers at around age 5, whether or not they have learned the difference between good and bad strangers. While they tend to become fiercely independent as they near age 5, they also become more aware of their surroundings.
Right on cue, Riley became weary of being separated in public at exactly age five. I’ve always kept a close eye on her while out in the world, but suddenly she started keeping an eye on me too. Just the other day she lost track of me at the bookstore. In a panic, she screamed my name and jumped to her feet. I had moved just three feet to the left.
It is essential to teach preschoolers about strangers and how to react when confronted with a suspicious stranger.
Below are some tips to do just that:
Use Age Appropriate Language: It’s important to teach kids about strangers, but young children do scare easily. Use language appropriate to the age of the child and take breaks to make sure your child understands. Answer and welcome all follow-up questions.
Define Stranger: A stranger is someone your family doesn’t know well. You see strangers out in public, you see strangers at religious services, and you even see strangers at your front door. It is difficult to tell if a stranger is good or bad simply by looking at him or her, so it’s important to be careful around all strangers.
Identify Good Strangers: Children need to know who they can trust should they become separated from you in public. They also need to be reassured that not all strangers are bad. Police officers, firefighters, teachers (at school), nurses (at school or in a hospital), doctors (in a hospital or other medical setting), librarians, and store clerks are all people to approach for help should a separation occur.
Teach Don’ts: Your child should never accept candy or a ride from a stranger, leave school, the park, or your home with a stranger even if that stranger says that mom sent him/her, converse with a stranger who makes him feel uncomfortable, hold hands with or sit on the lap of a stranger.
Teach About Suspicious Behavior: Teach your children that adults are not always right. An adult should never ask a child to break a rule, keep a secret, or do something without permission. These are red flags that should signal children to seek help.
Teach Physical Boundaries: All children need to know that their bodies are private and not to be touched by other adults. All children need to know that an adult should never hurt theirs bodies or make them feel uncomfortable about their bodies. Use correct terminology when talking about genitals and teach your children that no adult should touch a child’s genitals (unless it is during a doctor’s examination with parent permission). And, please, let them use the bathroom alone at home!
Empower Them: As much as children need to know what to look out for, they also need to have a plan. No, Yell, Run, Tell is a simple plan that even the youngest preschooler can remember. Children need to know that they can say no to adults, they have the right to make a scene in public if something is wrong, and it is acceptable to run from an uncomfortable situation. **Make sure they know your first and last name and their home address.
Open Door Policy: Make sure that your children understand that they can always tell you anything, no questions asked. Young children fear being reprimanded for poor choices. Pleasers by nature, they don’t like to disappoint their parents. They need to know that all thoughts and feelings are ok in your house. They need to know that they can count on you.
Teach Assertiveness: Children need to understand that they can speak up to adults. Adults are not always right, after all. Practice in benign situations. After two days of role-play, Riley just spoke up at school today to let her teachers know that she can have crackers with wheat in them, despite her allergies. I praised her for the act of asserting her needs. Over and over again!
Instincts: Teach your kids to trust their instincts. If something doesn’t feel right or makes them feel uncomfortable, they should run from the situation and seek help.
Role-Play: Young children learn best through practice. Role-play various situations at home: A stranger offers a ride, a stranger asks for help locating a lost kitten, a stranger shows up at school and says mom sent me, etc. Puppets are another great way to practice difficult situations.
Consider a Code: Create a secret code word for your family that stays within your family. In the event that you do have to send an aunt, neighbor, or friend to pick up your child at school, your child should ask that person to say the secret code word first. That’s the cue that it is ok to leave with that person.
- Point out safe places at the mall, the park, the grocery store, etc. so that your child knows where to go in the even of a separation
- Keep a visual on your child at all times when out in public
- Teach safety in numbers
- Keep an approved and updated emergency contact list at school or day care
- Do not let your children answer the front door alone, even when guests are expected
- Make sure your child knows his home address and your first name
- Teach your child to call 911 in an emergency
“The Berenstein Bears and The Stranger” by Stan and Jan Berenstein is a great book about understanding the difference between good and bad strangers.
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