You want your child to be safe, but not anxious. 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 kindergarten or high school, says pediatrician Richard So, MD. 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. So 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 they begin school, start teaching them about strangers,” he says. “Tell them that adults do not need children’s help to find things, like a puppy, for example. In today’s world, strangers offer Happy Meals and Legos, in addition to candy to lure children away. Do not take gifts from people you do not know.”
2. Define “stranger”
Make sure your kids know that a stranger is anybody who is unfamiliar to them — even people who seem friendly.
“Try not to force them to hug or high five someone they are not comfortable with yet,” says Dr. So. “This is the child’s natural defense mechanism. Tell new relatives they are learning stranger danger. Tell your child if dad or mom says someone is safe, then you can give them a hug. But you do not have to hug anyone that makes you feel uncomfortable. ”
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.
- Explain to your child that if they get lost, they should find another mommy with kids and ask her to help you find your mommy.
- 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. So. “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,” he says. “Reiterating what to do around strangers helps take the uncertainty out of a risky situation should one occur.”