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12/7/22 blog post

how to talk to your child about “stranger danger”

mom consoling daughter

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“Stranger danger” is a concept we’re all familiar with, but it can be daunting to try and navigate this topic with your child. We want our kids to be friendly and kind, but also aware of the possible dangers that exist when they’re out and about in the world. It’s a balancing act to educate our children, without scaring them. While there’s never a perfect time to have these conversations with our children, recent incidents in our community of attempted child abductions make this a timely topic for your family to discuss.

We sat down with Dayton Children’s Hospital child psychologist, Laura Meyers, PsyD, to talk about having these tough conversations with your child and teaching them early to trust their gut when it comes to strangers.

how can parents talk to their children about stranger danger without scaring them?

When starting a conversation with your child about this topic, let them know that you want to talk to them about how to stay safe when they are away from you.

Assure them that most people don’t want to hurt them and it’s difficult to know who might, so that’s why we talk about strangers – so you’re prepared with how to respond.

when should I talk to my child about “stranger danger?”

Conversations about “stranger danger” and safety can really happen at any age. You can start by teaching kids personal respect by asking permission and giving personal space. Allow them to say “no” if they don’t want to be held or hugged. There are also many books about this topic geared toward children that may help you start this conversation. 

Conversations with your child will look different depending on their age and situation. For example, if your child is old enough to stay home alone, your conversation should include guidance about not answering the door or sharing with others that they’re home alone. If your child is a college student, remind them to use the buddy system when they’re out on campus.

For younger kids, you can discuss how manners are good, but make sure that your child knows that there is a time and a place for manners. If someone is asking them to do something that makes them uncomfortable, it’s okay to say “no.” Give example scenarios like, “It’s okay to say hello to someone passing by on the sidewalk, but if they stop and try to talk to you or try to get you to come closer to them, don’t and run away.”

how should you define a “stranger” to your child?

Generally, a stranger is someone your family doesn’t know, but this will depend on your family. For some families, there are cultural/religious impacts of who is considered a stranger and who is considered a “safe” stranger.

When discussing this topic with your child, identify safe strangers that they can go to for help if they are separated from you, like a police officer or firefighter. If you’re away from home with your family at a zoo, amusement park or somewhere similar, identify a common place to meet, like a gift shop or information desk, or tell your child to look for an employee who works there, if you get separated.

should parents practice scenarios with their children on how these strategies should be reinforced?

Yes, it can be helpful to practice scenarios with your child. When doing so, give them specific examples when they may be approached by a stranger, like a park or riding their bike in the neighborhood. List some questions the stranger may ask them and practice how they would respond.

what should parents do if talking to their kids about this topic (or similar topics) makes their child feel anxious or scared?

It’s understandable that your child may feel anxious when talking about tough topics. If they appear anxious after your conversation, be sure to:

  • Validate their anxiety – it is scary to think that someone might want to harm you.
  • Reassure them that most people do not want to harm them.
  • Encourage them to discuss their anxiety. Help them understand that we discuss difficult topics so that we can make a plan and know what to do if we feel afraid.
  • Help them understand that emotions are designed to tell us how we feel about situations.

trust your gut

For example, if your child says, “I don’t want to go to Adam’s house,” avoid saying, “It’s fine, they’re perfectly nice people, I don’t understand why you’re so worried.” Your child may have a reason they don’t want to go to Adam’s house.

Instead, consider responding with, “Tell me what makes you feel that way?” or “I really believe you are safe there, how can I help you feel safer?” and “Is there anything I don’t know that you think I should?”

If your child has concerns or they feel anxious when around a stranger, remind them to trust their gut. Teach your child to trust their instincts and validate those concerns.

Laura Meyers, PsyD

behavioral health, psychology
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