Stranger Danger

A few weeks ago, we had an “incident” in our neighborhood: A paneled van pulled up to a house where a 10 year-old was waiting outside to be picked up by a friend, just as it was getting dark. The driver was “creepy,” according to the girl — long, scraggly hair, big bushy moustache — and he just sat in his car, staring at her.

The child screamed and ran into the house (good thinking). The car left. The next day when that girl was being let off the schoolbus, the van was back. A smart-thinking mom aware of the situation and there to pick her up, saw the van, took down the license plate number, and called the police.

Scary stuff. Needless to say, the parents in the community were riled-up and terrified. What if he comes back? What if he targets my child? What should we do?

The biggest question though was, “What do I tell my child NOW to keep him safe from this immediate threat?” Talking to children about predators is one of the hardest conversations to have. We want to protect their bodies, of course, but also their innocence. We don’t want to worry them or give them the message that the world is full of “bad guys.”

Plus, to be frank, the whole issue is so completely threatening to us that we push it out of our minds and resolve to just keep them safe ourselves. But we really can’t do that. We can’t be with them every second of their lives and they need guidance in coming to terms with the facts, a little at a time.

The other thing though, is that by five they are already thinking about bad guys. So talking about it, and giving them some strategies to keep in mind, will actually make them feel safer.

But what exactly do you say? First of all, tone of voice is extremely important. It’s a good idea to start very early honing your “second-grade-teacher voice.” It’s warm, calm, neutral, and matter-of-fact. This is the one to use whenever you have something important to talk about. It’s okay if you feel like you’re acting. You are. It’s the role of mother, one you grow into over the course of many years.

Second, have the conversation(s) when things are calm and unhurried. Don’t wait until a threat has presented itself. You will be stressed and that will show up in your face and voice. And then your child will see it, hear it, and react to it.

Say something like: “You know Anna, you’re getting to be a big girl now and I wanted to talk to you about something important. In our family, we work hard to make sure everybody is safe. And sometimes you’ll be playing at a friend’s house, or going to a birthday party or something, and I won’t be with you. So I want you to know that most of the people in the world are good, and would never try to hurt you. But there are some who are very sick in their minds, and they would try to hurt you, so you have to be careful. But we have some things that we do to keep safe:”

  • We never go anywhere with someone we don’t know. Ever. Even if they say they need our help. Sometimes people who are sick in their minds will say they are lost, or need help finding a pet, or even that I sent them to get you. But never believe them, and never go with them, no matter what. If that ever happened, you have to get away as fast as you can, find a grownup, and tell them.
  • When we go out, you have to stay with mommy or daddy. You can’t go off alone. We have to be able to see you all the time.
  • If you ever feel funny about someone, trust that feeling and get away. Tell me, or dad, or another person right away.
  • If someone you don’t know tries to pick you up, you can scream and yell and hit and kick and do anything you can to get away. I don’t want you to be polite. Yell “This is not my mom or dad,” as loud as you can. And keep yelling.
  • I’m sure this won’t happen to you. It’s very rare, but it’s always good to have a plan, just in case.

The important thing to remember is to keep the conversation going. It’s not enough to say it once and then forget about it. You can even make a little game about it and include it along with other safety topics like, What Would You Do If You Smelled Smoke In the House? or, What Would You Do If I Got Hit On The Head And Passed Out? or, What Would You Do If You Got Lost At the Mall?

Have a strategy for each one. Then the horrifying “monster-lurking-in-the-shadows” threat is put into a larger context of “Possible dangers that could come up, but that we have a plan for.”

If an incident like the one I described does happen, be extremely careful about NOT discussing it in the presence of your child. This is very, very important.

Children can be easily traumatized by hearing frightening information discussed in their presence. I do not use that word lightly. So make the phone calls, and have the discussions after you have made sure they are well out of earshot — optimally out of the house or asleep in their bed with the door closed. Don’t make the wrong assumption that because they are busy playing, or watching t.v., that they aren’t listening. THEY ARE.

If you do need to alert them to a particular situation, like the one I described, put it to them like this (again with the second-grade-teacher-voice): “Danny, there was a white van in the neighborhood that we are a little concerned about. The man in it was acting kind of strange, so we told the police and we’re going to be careful and let them know if we see it. Here’s what it looks like (then show him a picture from your computer of a similar car). I’m sure the police will take care of it, but I wanted you to know so you could be on the look-out, too. If you see it, I want you tell me right away and get away, just to be on the safe side.”

You don’t want to frighten them, but you do need to give them tools to work with. If they are scared, reassure them that it’s okay and that they are safe at home. Show them what you do to keep your home safe (locking the doors and windows etc.) and let them know they can keep their bedroom door open, have a night light, and always come to you if they feel uncomfortable.

The chances are very remote that your child will be a victim. Very remote. But it’s always best to be prepared and to give them tools to work with. That will actually make them feel stronger and safer in the long run.

For more tips, check with your local police department, library, or school principal.

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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3 responses to “Stranger Danger”

  1. Nancy

    But the chances of being victimized by someone who is NOT a stranger – who is a relative or a friend of the family – is not at all remote. Some estimates place the numbers around 1 in 10 boys and 1 in 4 girls. As a former teacher I think a lesson in stranger danger is only half the story. Children absolutely must learn about private places on their bodies and the difference between good touching and bad touching. Above all, they must learn NEVER EVER to keep a secret from Mom and Dad, even if the person hurting them tells them to. And they must learn that it’s OK to tell some secrets.

  2. Robin

    I’d like to recommend the book Protecting the Gift by Gavin DeBecker. It’s got some really good concrete helpful information, in my opinion. One thing I learned was that “the crazies” get their hands on uniforms ~ police or firefighter ~ to lull kids into trusting them. I’ve told my daughter repeatedly that if she ever gets lost or separated from me at a fair or outdoor event she could look for a police officer, but she could also just look for another mom with kids. It makes sense to me that a mom with kids of her own would be the least likely person to do my child harm and would work to reunite us.

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