We’ve always been very honest with baby girl and try to explain things as best as we can. We give her the information she asks for and often extend the conversations we have by asking her questions too. We share what we feel is appropriate for her to know, which of course evolves as she gets older.
Something we started teaching her about early-on was strangers. We explained who a stranger can be, what to do if approached by a stranger, and how we protect her on a constant basis. We’ve never had any issues, thankfully, and we were confident she understood just how dangerous it could be if she was to be separated from us. Then, we had a conversation this weekend that truly opened my eyes to the fact that kids really are innocent and trusting beings.
As we rode in the car on the way to the post office, she asked if she could stay in the car while I went inside to drop off a package. “Since, it’s just a quick trip!” she explained. I, of course, told her no and reminded her that many things could happen in that quick moment while I ran inside. “You don’t want a stranger to take you, do you?” I asked. She said she didn’t, but I had a feeling she wasn’t truly grasping the seriousness of the situation since she thought it would be okay to be left alone in the car. I decided to inquire more and provide her with more details than I remembered sharing in the past.
“You know strangers can really hurt children if they take them away from their parents, right?” She gave me a puzzled look and asked, “Hurt them how?” I proceeded to explain that there are mean people out in the world that can hurt children in many ways, “…by physically beating you, hurting your privates, and even killing kids.” I knew I was being more graphic than I wanted to be, but it seemed it was what my daughter needed at the moment. She needed to hear the brutal truth without the gory details. Her answer to my next question confirmed she did need to hear it. “What did you think happened when strangers take kids?” “I thought they acted just like your parents, but it was just that you missed your real parents.” My heart dropped. I had failed in providing my daughter with the proper information.
I reiterated what I had just explained and tried to console her as best as I could from the driver’s seat as she cried in the back learning the sad truth. I did remind her that her dad and I love her very much and that we tell her to stay with us at all times because of those reasons. “You don’t need to worry, baby,” I said, “but you need to know what to do to protect yourself and let us protect you too.”
Teaching Kids About Strangers
Considering this conversation, of course I now want to make sure she knows more and has the proper tools and information to recognize a dangerous situation and react appropriately. We’ll be talking more about strangers and safety with her over the coming months to be sure she understands completely. Just by doing a quick search for tips on teaching kids about strangers, I’ve already learned a couple of things we need to do with her, like actually role playing various scenarios with her so she feels comfortable in knowing what to do. Another tip I learned was about having a secret password that only her and us know, which is something so simple that I never thought about!
What to Tell Kids About Strangers: Tips From a Psychologist
I decided to ask a friend of mine, Angélica Pérez-Litwin, PhD, the publisher and creative force behind New Latina, for her input. She is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in private practice and I thought she’d have some good advice regarding this situation. Here’s what she had to say on the topic of talking with kids about strangers.
How much should we say to children about strangers so that we don’t make them paranoid, but so they also realize how dangerous the situation can be?
I’m not sure the issue is one about “strangers” because, in reality, the people she knows (including family members) can be dangerous people. So, it is best not to distinguish dangerous people as strangers because they can be an uncle, a neighbor, and a close family friend. In fact, most child sexual abuse cases are committed by individuals who are close to the child.
Ideally, we want our children to understand that anybody has the capacity to do something inappropriate or disrespectful, including their teachers, coaches, neighbors, friends and family members. As such, [children] should always be aware, not scared, of people around them. They need to understand that while there are a lot of good, decent people in the world, there are people who are not well in their mind and in their heart. And, it is never easy to tell who is who — this is key. This brings us back to the aforementioned point — that kids need to be aware of how people behave around them and towards them. If they feel uncomfortable or unsafe, they should immediately inform mom and dad.
I also don’t tell my kids not to trust people. I show them not to trust people. How? I show them not to trust people when I ask my children if there is a teacher at school that’s acting inappropriate with them, or if there is a coach asking them to come to a room alone. I give them examples of what people could be asking them that would be inappropriate. I also do the same when they visit a family member or a friend’s home. By asking these questions, I normalize the idea of not trusting people, regardless of who they are.
Do you believe showing our kids news stories about child abductions is a smart way to help make the concept more concrete?
This depends on the child’s age, level of emotional maturity and how trusting they are of people. If you have a young child that might become too scared by watching that type of news, perhaps it’s best to buy a picture book and read them a story on the subject. If your child is too comfortable around strangers, you can have this conversation earlier rather than later. More importantly, I believe, is to keep the conversation (and the questions) around safety going on. I typically check-in with my kids weekly — one day I might ask about bullying (without using that word necessarily), other times I ask point blank “Is there anyone at school who’s tried to touch you in your private area, or tried to kiss you, or made you feel uncomfortable?” and then I even go over types of people “Any teachers? Friends? Your sports coach?” It comes to a point that they get used to it, so checking in becomes more like checking in for homework.
Tips and Activities for Teaching Kids About Strangers
For some more reading and ideas to help you talk to your kids about strangers, check out these resources.
- What to Teach Kids About Strangers
- Activities to Teach Children About Strangers
- Lesson Ideas for Teaching Preschoolers and Kindergartners About Strangers
Photo: Vinoth Chandar