You want your child to be independent, but safe. Unless you talk to your child about “Stranger Danger,” it may be hard to know when to use caution vs. trust.
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Discussing Stranger Danger is a must whether your child is entering preschool or high school, says Alan H. Rosenthal, MD, pediatrician at Cleveland Clinic’s Chagrin Falls Family Health Center. Kidnapping can happen when taking a nap or driving a car, so there’s no wrong age to stress the importance of staying away from people who could harm you.
Dr. Rosenthal advises parents to:
1. Start young
Teaching Stranger Danger is a critical part of a child’s development — just like learning to look both ways when crossing the street.
“As soon as you begin reading to your children, start drumming in the concepts,” says Dr. Rosenthal. “After years of repeating ‘stay away from strangers, don’t go with them, don’t take candy from them, stay away from strange cars,’ it becomes ingrained. This isn’t something they should first hear at age 14.”
2. Define “stranger”
Make sure your kids know that a stranger is anybody who is unfamiliar to them — even people who seem friendly.
“If an unfamiliar person says ‘I’m good friends with your father,’ they’re still a stranger to you,” says Dr. Rosenthal.
3. Choose any method
What you say and the way you teach your kids about Stranger Danger is up to you. Just do something — and then do it again and again. Some families:
- Role-play and practice responding in different scenarios.
- Establish a family code word. Anyone sent to pick up your child must use the code word so the child knows it’s safe to get in the car.
- Identify safe adults, like police officers, whom children can go to if they sense danger.
- Set walking rules, including what to do if walking alone or with a friend.
- Make guidelines for being home alone, such as how to answer (or not answer) the door or phone.
4. Be frank
Honesty is the best policy when it comes to talking about Stranger Danger. So don’t withhold information or worry about scaring your kids.
“Kids are a lot stronger than we give them credit for,” says Dr. Rosenthal. “You don’t need to baby them all the time. Talk to them as one person to another. Tell them they need to be responsible for protecting themselves.”
Even with year after year of reminders, being safe still requires a little luck — not being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But unsafe situations can be less risky when Stranger Danger precautions are ingrained.
“Kids like certainty and predictability,” says Dr. Rosenthal. “Reiterating what to do around strangers helps take the uncertainty out of a risky situation should one occur.”