The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Crime Information Center estimates that roughly 2,000 children are reported missing every day. Luckily, the vast majority of missing children are found and their cases are resolved within hours; of those who aren’t immediately found, up to 49% are later found to have been abducted by a non-custodial parent or relative. 27% are kidnapped by an acquaintance, leaving only 24% at the hands of complete strangers. While the term “Stranger Danger” has a catchy ring to it, it’s actually a bit misleading because less than ¼ of all abducted children are taken by a stranger. This makes it extremely important to teach children about more than just stranger avoidance.
- Most People Are Strangers – Realistically, the majority of the people that your child encounters throughout the course of his day are strangers. Instilling a fear of all strangers will only cause him to regard anyone he doesn’t know with fear, which could make it difficult for him to approach a stranger for help if he’s in need.
- Avoid Absolutes – Saying things like “all strangers are bad,” or “never talk to anyone you don’t know, ever” only make it difficult for your child to navigate social encounters and unravel the mysteries of the world around him.
- “Good” Strangers – Pointing out that kids can always turn to people in police or firefighters’ uniforms, teachers and other official authority figures can help him to understand the difference between strangers that wish him harm and those that can offer him assistance when he needs it.
- No Gifts, Treats or Surprises – Let your child know that he shouldn’t accept any treats, presents or surprises from anyone that tells him that those gifts should be kept a secret. Making a policy of not accepting gifts from people he doesn’t know well is a wise idea.
- Talk About “Tricky” People – Because most kids are abducted or sexually abused by people that they know it’s much more important for kids to learn about “tricky” people than “stranger danger.” A tricky person is anyone who asks him to keep a secret from his parents, to lie about where he’s been, or to go somewhere with them without talking to a parent first.
- The Rules Apply to Big Kids, Too – Make sure that your child knows not to go anywhere with a tricky person, even if that person is an older kid. It’s easy for children taught about Stranger Danger to view adults as scary and other kids as always safe, but this isn’t always the case.
- Encourage Kids to Ask Questions – In order to ensure that your child has a grasp of the concepts you’re teaching, have him ask you any questions that he wants. Let him know that he won’t be in any trouble, no matter what he asks. Your child needs to know that he can always trust you when he needs to talk about strangers, tricky people and trouble; presenting an opportunity to ask no-holds-barred questions on the subject can begin to build that trust.
- Be Honest – It’s important to answer your child’s questions with age-appropriate honesty. Try not to evade questions, tell white lies, or otherwise subvert the truth when it comes to this very serious issue. Keep in mind that his questions are only an indication that he’s listening to what he’s being told, and is trying his best to process it.
- Keep the Conversation Age-Appropriate – While it’s important to be honest and up-front with your child on the subject of abuse, Stranger Danger and abductions, you should also remember just how vivid your child’s imagination is. The child whose mind can turn a shadow on the wall into a lurking monster might not need all the gory details about a local abduction case.
- Maintain an Ongoing Dialogue – It’s important to teach small children how to safely and responsibly handle situations with strangers and tricky people, but it’s also just as important to continue the conversation as your child ages. When he’s older, the focus may shift more to avoiding online predators and exploitation, but the basic concept is still the same and shouldn’t be abandoned after the first discussion.
Striking a balance between instructing kids on responsible behavior and outright fear-mongering is a challenge, but it’s one that you must face as a parent. While it’s of vital importance to educate your children regarding the best way to avoid abduction or abuse, it’s also important not to create anxiety and overwhelming fear of all strangers in his mind.