Stranger Danger and Stranger Safety

Featured Expert:

We encounter people we don’t know every day, and it is important to teach our children how to be safe in these situations. Although actual abductions and inappropriate stranger situations are rare, it is very important for us to keep our children safe and secure. Jennifer Katzenstein, Ph.D., director of psychology and neuropsychology and co-director of the Center for Behavioral Health at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, gives parents some important reminders about talking to your kids.

When in public, it is important for us to keep a good eye on our kids and keep them safe, but also for them to have the skills to manage a stranger should they be approached. Most abductions involve a suspect driving a vehicle and occur for children between the ages of 10-14 and between 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. The top five abduction attempts are through 1) offering a ride, 2) offering candy/treats, 3) asking questions, 4) offering money, and 5) offering or showing an animal.

Most important, “stranger danger” ignores the fact that most children are abducted by someone they know. 

Avoiding strangers will not help if the abductor is a family member, neighbor or family acquaintance. When you talk to your children about abduction prevention, don’t focus on warning them about certain types of people. Instead, teach them to identify and respond to threatening situations. 

What age should I start talking with my child about stranger safety? 

Start with a calm, transparent/honest, and developmentally appropriate conversation with your child. It is really important to talk openly about strangers, and don’t respond in an overly emotional way. Modeling a calm style is important.

Conversations should begin at an early age, with information tailored to the age of your child and adjusted over time. Discuss safety issues in a positive, open and reassuring manner, modeling a calm but realistic problem-solving style. A matter-of-fact approach will make your child aware that he is capable of dealing with life's realities. Even the youngest child can be taught simple rules about personal safety, such as his whole name, address, and phone number, the names of his parents, who to call in an emergency, and how to use the phone to call 911. Here are some points to keep in mind: 

  • Preschoolers (ages 3 to 5) are very curious, but don’t always recognize the intents of others. Teach your young child simple facts such as her name and address. They can learn about expected behavior in different situations through games and play, make sure you are talking about who we know and trust, and not to go off or leave with someone they don’t know. Use words like “tricky person” instead of stranger, because stranger is a challenging concept.
  • Elementary school-age children (ages 6 to 9) are concerned with issues of right and wrong and can learn basic safety rules. Since they want to cooperate and please adults, they may be tricked by a seemingly tempting situation. At this age, children learn best through concrete examples, role-playing, and repetition of rules. 
  • Tweens and teens (ages 10 and up) become more capable of judging the consequences of a potentially dangerous situation. They are likely to be in unsupervised situations more often and are influenced by their peers, and therefore, they may think they should act "cool." Your child still benefits from ongoing discussions of risks, using real-life situations as examples. 

What are some terms I should use when discussing stranger danger?

This is important – make safety a part of your everyday life, and routine. Ask questions and present scenarios to check your child’s understanding. And establish home and phone safety rules, including keeping doors locked and not answering questions about personal details (location, address, etc.) over the phone or over the internet.

But also, just saying “stranger danger” doesn’t mean something to some kids, and some strangers don’t seem so strange if they have ice cream or an adorable puppy. Remind them that anyone can be a tricky person, so if you haven’t met them before, then that is someone we shouldn’t go off with or talk to unless your parent/caregiver is there.

  • Don’t say: Never talk to strangers.
  • Say: You should not approach just anyone. If you need help, look for a uniformed police officer, a store clerk with a nametag, or a parent with children. 
  • Don’t say: Stay away from people you don’t know. 
  • Say: It’s important for you to get my permission before going anywhere with anyone. 
  • Don't say: You can tell someone is bad just by looking at them. 
  • Say: Pay attention to what people do. Tell me right away if anyone asks you to keep a secret, makes you feel uncomfortable, or tries to get you to go with them. 

What are ways I can keep my child safe?

Even the youngest child can be taught simple rules about personal safety, such as his whole name, address, and phone number, the names of his parents, who to call in an emergency, and how to use the phone to call 911.

Present rules around strangers. Make sure your child knows never to go anywhere or get in a car with strangers. Do not accept anything from strangers and do not answer questions from strangers.

Help identify a safety net of trusted adults and places, and discuss “safe routes” from school and other destinations, including places to avoid, such as areas without people and parking lots.

Discuss what to do if you and your child are separated or lost from you. Make sure that your child can identify a safe person, such as an employee or security guard/police, and let them know they should NOT leave the site. “if you are lost, look for an employee.” 

Encourage your child to take action and trust their instincts. If they feel unsafe, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recommends a “no-go-tell” approach, including 1) saying no if someone makes you scared or uncomfortable, 2) go away from the situation, and 3) tell a trusted adult.

“Never go with an adult unless your mom/dad/caregiver says it’s OK and knows about it.” Consider a password system.

When adolescents/teenagers are old enough to go out alone, always ask who they will be with, where they will be, and when they will return home – the three Ws.

And, know what your child is doing on social media! Human trafficking is a significant problem, and predators can use chatrooms and other video games to arrange face to face meetings with kids. Know how to put parental controls on all apps on their devices and monitor them closely. 

What are some other resources? 

National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and may provide additional resources.

Center for Behavioral Health at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital

The Center for Behavioral Health in the Institute for Brain Protection Sciences at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, provides evidence-based mental health screening, consultation, evaluation and treatment.

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