If your children are approaching the age where you’d like to give them a little more freedom or you think it’s time to make them aware of ‘stranger danger’, take a look at the info and tips on this page. It’s important not to worry your children unduly but unfortunately in this day and age, where communities are not so close and children can be more vulnerable when they are out and about, our kids do need to be aware of potential threats to their safety.
This post aims to help you as a parent explain stranger danger to your children, in a clear, calm and rational way.
Our perceptions of danger versus reality
It is incredibly difficult as a parent not to fear the world outside when it comes to our children. Living as we do in an on-demand, 24-hour news culture, we can feel bombarded by news stories about child abductions or crimes committed against children. Cases such as that of Jaycee Lee Dugard (the American teenager who was snatched off the street and held captive by a stranger for 18 years) capture the public imagination and make us confront our very worst fears about our children. Added to this is the worry about our children becoming a target of Internet grooming, another issue which hits the headlines with alarming frequency.
But it’s important to try to keep a handle on the reality of the situation regards child abductions, particularly if we want our children to understand how to keep safe when they are out and about, and what to do if they should find themselves in a situation that makes them uncomfortable. Unfortunately recent years have seen an increase in child abductions in Britain. But – and it’s an important but – although the percentage increase may seem high, in terms of the numbers involved they are still very small. On average 11 children are killed by a stranger each year in the UK (and there are more than 11 million children in the UK), a figure that has not increased since the 1970s. Statistically children are more at risk of abuse from someone they know. Of course the murder or abuse of any child is a tragedy but the actual statistics do imply that our parental anxieties about stranger danger are misplaced.
Children under 7 do need adult supervision when they are out and about but most experts agree that as a child becomes older they should gradually be given a little more independence and allowed to go out and about on their own. It’s important that children learn street awareness and road safety, that they understand the importance of their own intuition and know how to deal with potentially dangerous scenarios. But they will need your help and guidance to lead them along the road to a safe and happy independence.
Defining what a stranger is
Perhaps you have already talked to children about the danger of ‘strangers’. But does your child actually understand what is meant by a ‘stranger’? When children’s charity Kidscape interviewed 500 children aged between five and eight, they found that while nine out of ten knew they should never go with a stranger, there was a lot of confusion about what a stranger actually looks like or does. Six out of ten of the children questioned thought a stranger couldn’t be a woman and most described a stranger as a sinister-looking man with dark glasses and a beard.
It’s vitally important your child knows that a stranger is anyone that they do not know. They can be male, female, young, old – any person unknown to your child who approaches them for no reason (unless your child is obvious distress, has had an accident or is lost) could pose a danger. It doesn’t matter how smartly dressed they are or how polite and well-meaning they appear – any person your child does not know, who approaches them or tries to offer them a lift should be ignored and your child should quickly walk or run away from them.
Basic stranger danger rules your child should know
- Never accept gifts or sweets from a stranger
- Never accept a lift in a car from a stranger
- Never go anywhere with a stranger
- Never go off on your own without telling a parent or trusted adult
- Never go up to a car to give directions – keep away so that no one can get hold of you and you can run away
- Always tell a trusted adult if you have been approached by a stranger
- Remember the Yell, Run, Tell rule – it’s okay to run and scream if you find yourself in danger. Get away from the source of danger as fast as you can.
- If you find yourself in danger always run towards shops or other busy places with lots of people
- If you think that you are being followed, go into a shop or knock on the door of a house and ask for help
- Never play in dark or lonely places
- Stay with your group of friends – never wonder off on your own
- Never agree to do a job for someone you don’t know in return for money – they may be trying to trick you
- Make sure your parents know where you are going and when you will be back. If your plans change be sure to tell your parents
Danger from a person your child does know
Unfortunately the statistics indicate that your child could be more at risk from someone they do know than from a complete stranger; in relation to paedophiles, 66% of paedophiles are known to children compared to 34% who are strangers. Just like strangers, you can’t define a ‘typical paedophile’, and although most are men, there are some female paedophiles; bear in mind also that some paedophiles use women to lure children into dangerous situations. Kidscape has learnt first-hand from paedophiles how they gain access to children and has found that they spend time in places children are likely to visit, such as parks, shopping centres, arcades, playgrounds, swimming pools and fast-food restaurants.
It’s important that your child knows to trust their instincts, particularly in relation to someone they may be familiar with. If a situation or someone is making them feel uncomfortable make sure your child understands they should always act on their instincts and get as far away from the source of their discomfort as quickly as possible. They should never feel embarrassed that they have over-reacted; a well-meaning adult would never put your child in an uncomfortable position.
Children are brought up to be obedient and trusting of adults and if a person your child knows in some way approaches them they can find themselves even more vulnerable than if approached by a stranger. And if they are with a friend who seems okay with the situation your child may be unsure of what to do. They may worry that because the person is someone they know if they walk away they will get told off for being rude, either by you or the adult themselves. Make sure your child understands it’s better to be safe than sorry and that they will never be reprimanded by anyone for taking action if they think they could be in danger.
Below are some further safety tips to consider and share with your child:
- Have a family codeword. Tell your child that if anyone tries to collect them from school or anywhere else – including someone they know – that person must tell them the codeword. If they don’t know the codeword, your child should not get into the car.
- Children should always tell you if anyone – including someone they know – touches them in a confusing or frightening way. Furthermore, they should understand that no one – including friends or family – should ever ask them to keep kisses, cuddles or touches secret.
- Trust your own instincts, too. If someone makes you uncomfortable and you don’t like your children being around that person, go with your instinct, even if you feel you are being silly or untrustworthy.
- If your child seems uncomfortable around somebody you know, try to find out why. Your child may hint they don’t like going round to someone’s house, for example, or they may suddenly say they don’t want to go to an activity they have previously enjoyed, when what they really mean is that someone associated with those places has made them feel uncomfortable.
Safer Strangers, Safer Buildings
As well as understanding that some strangers are dangerous, it’s important for children to know about adults they can turn to if they are on their own and in trouble.
A safer stranger is a person who is working in a job which helps people. They are usually wearing a uniform (which is a quick and easy way for your child to identify them) and could be police officers, police community support officers, traffic wardens, shopkeepers, check-out assistants, paramedics and others. Safer buildings, meanwhile, could be banks, post offices, libraries, medical centres, shops, supermarkets, leisure centres and others. There will often be a reception desk and there will be someone there to help you. Children can then explain to a safe stranger what has happened, tell that person their name and supply a contact phone number for a parent or guardian.
Visit the Safer Strangers, Safer Buildings website to find out more and watch a short film of the initiative in practice.
Stranger Danger Online
Of course in today’s high-tech world the Internet has provided plenty of opportunities for stranger danger to flourish. Netmums have a page dedicated to keeping children safe online, covering chat rooms and social networking sites. We recommend you familiarise your child with the SMART code, an easy-to-understand way to help your child stay safe online. In addition it’s important for parents to take an interest in what your child’s looking at on the internet. Be very wary about letting children have access to the net from the privacy of their bedrooms, where they may strike up friendships with unsuitable individuals without your knowledge.
S for Secret: always keep personal details secret
M for Meeting: meeting someone you met on the Internet is NOT advisable but if you do, have a parent or carer present
A for Accepting: accepting emails from someone you don’t know can cause trouble. They may contain viruses or nasty messages
R for Remember:someone online may be lying and may not be who they sat they are. Stick to public areas of chatrooms and if you feel uncomfortable – GET OUT
T for Tell: tell your parents or carer if anything is worrying you
Self-defence for children
Experts agree that equipping children with assertiveness and self-confidence can really help them to keep safe when they’re out and about. You might like to consider enrolling your child on a self-defense class which help children to not only keep fit and active but also learn life skills such as confidence and courage, as well as teaching them how to defend themselves if necessary. There are many martial arts classes available for children, which will combine elements of the above.
Thank you to Netmums for the information & statistics supplied, http://www.netmums.com