Many generations of parents have told their kids not to talk to strangers. But awareness of “stranger danger” is not enough. Experts say that “authority figures” account for 50 percent of child molestation cases today and the offenders are often known to the child. Because problems may occur with adults your child knows (coaches and other familiar figures), parents now are searching for more ways to talk to their children about this issue.
How can you best teach your child to stay safe from predators? You don’t want to make your kids fearful or overanxious about interacting with people, but you can take a gentle approach to teaching them ways to be safe.
Start with basic safety guidelines and talk with your child during naturally occurring learning opportunities (perhaps when you're driving with your child to school or out walking the dog). At times, you may need to set aside a specific brief period to go over safety rules and prevention with your child. And, be sure to have your kids repeat and practice them.
Basic Safety Guidelines for Kids
Here are some safety Do's and Don'ts to share with your child:
- Do tell parents where you are at all times. If you end up in an unfamiliar place, go into a store or other public place and ask for help with directions or help placing a call home.
- Don't ever get in a vehicle or leave with a person you do not know. If you do know the driver, first confirm with your parents that it's okay to accept the ride.
- Don't go to another location with a stranger or acquaintance.
- Do have parent-child discussions about safe Internet practices. Explain that when online, anyone can become a target to unsavory advances from unfamiliar people posing as "friends."
- Don't travel alone. (Do use a "buddy" system instead.)
Knowing It’s Okay to Say “No”
While you don't want to create excess anxiety, it's important that your child is prepared to recognize and deal with inappropriate behavior in adults. Talk with your youngster calmly about some possible scenarios they or their friends might encounter:
- If an adult or “authority figure” asks your child to keep a secret, make sure he or she knows that this is not appropriate behavior and they should tell a parent.
- If a stranger or acquaintance suggests going somewhere together or asks for a “special favor,” be sure your child knows to say “no.” They can say, "I have to first ask my parents' permission," and then come tell you what occurred.
- When an unfamiliar adult approaches, be certain your child knows that they can make an excuse like “Sorry, I have to go” or “I’m not allowed to talk to strangers,” and move away.
- If an adult is persistent in detaining your child, teach your child to refuse any invitation, loudly, and walk away. If the adult gets physical with them, they should know it is okay to yell at them to attract attention and run.
- If taken to an area that is unfamiliar, try to get to a phone to call 911.
Make a Plan of Action
Many people practice safety drills in case a natural disaster strikes. Likewise prepare your child for dealing with inappropriate adult behavior and potential predators or stranger danger by talking with them about what to do and practicing plans of action.
- First, be sure you maintain a rapport with your child and open channels of communication, so he or she is always comfortable sharing what’s occurring at school and other places, including interactions with the other adults in his or her life.
- Be sure your child knows his or her home address, parents’ phone numbers, and the 911 emergency phone number.
- Only send a trusted friend or family member (from your pre-approved emergency contact list) to pick up your child at school, and make sure your child knows to only go with the pre-approved adults.
- Draw a simple map of your area so your child knows where to go in an emergency or if he or she feels threatened—point out “safe places,” (fire stations or similar spots) on the map. Go over these during an in-person trial run.
Stay on the Alert
As a parent, remain on the lookout for unusual behaviors and situations in your child’s life. Listen closely to your kids to find out who they are interacting with on a daily basis, and if there is anyone who doesn’t necessarily belong in their world.
When you pick up your child from a public place (such as school or the mall), look around to see if there are any unfamiliar adults hanging around where they shouldn’t be. If you see any questionable characters, you might point them out to your child to raise his or her awareness of behavior they should be on the alert for.
In the past decade, the FBI has made significant progress in identifying child predators and making this information public. It has created a database of more than 400,000 registered sexual offenders in the U.S., but many offenders have changed their identities or are “missing.” The best approach is for parents and children to be vigilant and learn to recognize and deal with questionable behavior.