Every now and again this topic rises to the surface and it has again this week. In Beerwah’s past, there has been talk of white vans cruising the neighbourhood and the terrible tragedy of Daniel Morecombe has heightened our community’s sense of stranger danger.
Child abduction and dangerous pedophiles on the loose receive a lot of media coverage even though they are very rare occurrences. It is a scary thought but needs a calm approach with our children. Sometimes, well-meaning people can traumatise children by how they talk about stranger danger which results in a petrified child too frightened to enjoy a normal childhood.
Fortunately, there is a lot of information on how to talk to our children about stranger danger, no matter how old they are. The tricky part is to have an approach that informs, equips and empowers our children without alarming or traumatising them.
Kidpower International changed the phrase from ‘Stranger Danger’ to ‘Stranger Safety’ and had some excellent advice about talking to your children about this topic. The Daniel Morcombe Foundation is also an exceptional resource for parents and educators. Here are eight top tips from these and other reliable resources.
Tip 1: A stranger is just someone you don’t know. To your child, every person they don’t recognise is a stranger and that will be the majority of people outside their small group of friends and family. We need to communicate with our children not to be afraid just because a person is a stranger and the word ‘stranger’ is not inherently bad or dangerous. Take the fear out of the word. Point out strangers in the park and talk about how they can be a man, woman or child.
Tip 2: Most people are nice which means most strangers are nice. Everyone was a stranger to us once upon a time. It has even been said that ‘strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet’. It’s okay to explain to children that not all strangers are nice but equip them with the guidelines that will keep them safe. A good example a child can relate to is not to approach dogs they don’t know. It might be a dog who enjoys a pat but it might be a dog who bites.
Tip 3: The stranger rules are different when children are with parents and caregivers. Talk over different scenarios with your children. Having friends from work over for a barbeque or getting together with the soccer families in the park. It’s okay to be friendly to people you don’t know i.e. strangers, when you have trusted adults by your side.
Tip 4: The stranger rules are different when children are on their own. Talk to your children about being careful with strangers when they are not with a trusted adult. Go through different scenarios and role play various things that might happen. Discuss what they should do if someone calls them from a car or if someone claims they have been sent by mum to pick them up. What should they do if a stranger moves towards them and they are by themselves. Give your children tools to make them feel comfortable and confident to handle situations they may worry about. If your child walks to school, are there safe houses they can run to if they feel unsafe? Deal with these discussions calmly without frightening your child. Emphasise that they are ‘just in case’ scenarios. It’s extremely unlikely that you will ever need to have your child picked up by someone they won’t recognise but have a secret phrase or code word that the child will remember. That way, if they are ever approached by someone saying that mummy sent them, they can ask for the secret word and know to run to safety if it is not forthcoming. You will probably never need it but it will be of comfort to your child to know that something is in place and they can stop worrying about that scenario.
Tip 5: The stranger safety rules are different in an emergency. Talk to your children about who to seek out if they get separated from you. For example, if you are in a shopping centre, show your child how to recognise an employee by their uniform or name badge. Show them where the cash register is, tell them to go there, tell the checkout person they are lost and wait there until you find them. If someone grabs them in a shopping centre give them full permission to scream their lungs out and yell ‘stranger danger’. It is the one time when an extreme reaction is fully justified.
Tip 6: Never force your child to hug someone they don’t want to. An important part of children recognising unsafe situations is trusting their own instincts. Children need to feel comfortable hugging and if you insist they hug your friends or even family when they are uncomfortable (for any reason) it will erode their confidence that it is okay to say no to physical affection. Friends and family that you have known for years may appear to be strangers to our children. Asking them to hug someone whom they are not comfortable with will confuse what they know about stranger safety.
Tip 7: Know the three Rs. The Morcombe Foundation encourages children to know the three Rs which are Recognise, React and Report. An example they give is to ask your child how they feel if they are going to miss their bus, have to go to the doctor or saw a scary movie. How did their body react? How does their tummy feel when they are scared or worried? Teaching our children to recognise feelings and recognise their reactions will help protect them when we aren’t with them. Our children will learn to recognise their feelings, react in a way that keeps them safe and then report to us what happened.
Tip 8: Respond calmly if your child tells you something. Never dismiss what they are saying; give them your full attention but keep your reactions calm. Reassure your child that they are not in trouble (if they are worried about telling you), talk about how they felt and then problem-solve together. There are too many situations to give examples but your child will take his or her cues from your reaction. Staying calm and talking about it shows them that they don’t need to be frightened, they can tell you everything and they have someone who will be there for them.
What we do at GCC
Our College Pastors take our primary students through a Protective Behaviours program that deals with a broad range of tools to help keep them safe. Our staff use teachable moments and talk to the students and the annual Day for Daniel is often the culmination of class programs on safety.
It bears remembering that children are 9 times more likely to be abused by someone they know rather than a stranger so we need to keep the danger in perspective.
The facts are that child abduction, or attempted abduction is extremely rare. The most important thing you can do as a parent or caregiver is to give your children the tools to feel confident in any situation, help them develop their instincts for danger and let them know that they can always come to you.
Mike Curtis, Principal