I’m often asked my opinion of talking to children about interactions with strangers and how I would best approach the topic. It may surprise you that I am really not a fan of the idea. Why?
* Most child abductions and abuse occur from somebody known to the child (family members, family friends or professionals known to the child). Warning children about ‘Stranger Danger’ somehow implies that they can implicitly trust all those close to them, when actually these people pose far more risk to the child.
* Strangers can play an important part in keeping a child safe. For instance, if they get lost in a shop, or run into trouble when they venture out alone for the first time.
* Following from the above point, those who children really need to trust to help them keep them safe are technically strangers – here, the most pertinent being Police Officers.
* Warning children of the danger of all strangers can cause unnecessary anxiety when children meet new adults.
Instead, I far prefer the terms “funny tummy people” or “tricky people”. Of these two terms “funny tummy people” is my favourite. While a young child could struggle to grasp the idea of a ‘tricky person’, most will understand the concept of something not feeling right and giving them a funny feeling in their tummy. Most importantly, these terms include ALL adults (and older children), not just strangers.
What should children know?:
* Who they can trust in an emergency (e.g: the emergency services, store security guards, a mother with young children etc..)
* What to do if somebody makes them feel a funny tummy (how to say “stop!” and find and tell a trusted adult)
* That they should never be made to have physical contact with somebody they don’t want – this also includes visits to Santa, never force a child to cuddle him for a photo opportunity if they are uncomfortable! (more HERE on respecting body autonomy in childhood)
* The pants rule (click HERE)
* When it is appropriate to speak with strangers (eg if they are in danger, or if you are with them) and when it is not.
* How to call the emergency services
* Teach them a password, in case you ever need somebody to collect them in an emergency. Make it short and easily memorable and tell them to never go with anybody (whoever they are, even if the child knows them well) unless they know the password.
* That they can tell you ANYTHING that is worrying them, without fear of repercussion or ridicule (this is where Gentle Discipline is so important – if children are used to your support when they are experiencing tricky times, rather than being excluded from you as punishment – they may be more likely to confide in you).
I don’t think it’s ever too early to start these discussions with children. Particularly if you use age-appropriate props, such as cartoons and books to aid the discussions.
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