Talking to kids about strangers is a common parenting concern, particularly when preschoolers begin to assert their independence by wandering just a little. Children come in contact with strangers every day. They see them at the park, they see them at the grocery store, they see them at the public library, and they see them when they’re out for a walk around town. When you really stop and think about it, children are surrounded by strangers.
We tell them to be polite and friendly, but then we tell them to stay away from strangers. We encourage them to avoid people who make them uncomfortable, but then we sit them on the Easter Bunny’s lap once a year, even when they feel scared.
And while not all strangers are bad, not all strangers are good either.
My son was recently offered a lollipop by a complete stranger at the post office. He froze. At the moment the candy was offered, I was writing an address on an envelope, but he was right by my side. I looked up and smiled, thanking the woman for the gesture but passing on the lollipop. And we chatted all the way home about what a good decision he made by grabbing my leg and not taking candy from a stranger. We’ve had conversations about strangers before (several times, in fact), but nothing compares to that moment when stranger danger confronts a little one face-to-face. Did that woman have bad intentions? Probably not, but why take the chance?
Stranger danger is a confusing concept for little kids.
It’s a lot to process, and it helps to give kids strategies using age-appropriate language.
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 whom 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.
Another great way to teach little ones to find help quickly is to tell them to look for mommies with little kids. Most moms will stop what they’re doing to help a small child find a parent (I have done so on more than one occasion), and looking for a smiling mommy with little kids by her side is an easy strategy for little ones.
Be sure to point out friendly helpers as often as possible so that kids can internalize the concept of friendly strangers. A trip to your local police station or firehouse can be a great resource for kids. They get to chat with helpers and feel comfortable with 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, that they have the right to make a scene in public if something is wrong, and that it is acceptable to run from an uncomfortable situation and tell a trusted adult.
**Make sure they know your first and last name and their home address. Also, don’t put their first names on their shirts. Strangers can use their names to trick little ones into thinking that they know them. Put last names or initials on clothing to avoid this problem, or just leave their names off of their clothing.
Teach the “Don’ts”
Make sure your child understands the don’ts.
- Don’t accept candy from a stranger.
- Don’t get into a car with a stranger.
- Don’t leave school, the park, or anywhere else with a stranger even if the stranger says mom sent them.
- A stranger should never touch a child at all, including attempting to hold a hand or sit a child on his or her lap.
- Don’t feel bad about being assertive, yelling, or running away from a stranger when feeling threatened.
Create 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.
Tips for parents
- Point out safe places at the mall, the park, the grocery store, etc. so that your child knows where to go in the event 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 daycare.
- Do not let your children answer the front door alone, even when guests are expected.
- Make sure your child knows his/her home address and your first name.
- Teach your child to call 911 in an emergency.
- Don’t force your child to take pictures with Santa, the Easter Bunny, or any other person in costume! Many children feel scared under these conditions, and they should not be forced to interact with strangers in costume.
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