Last reviewed and revised by Faculty of Harvard Medical School on October 24, 2011
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Boston Children's Hospital
It's a scary world especially for parents.
We open the newspaper in the morning or turn on the T.V. to stories of bad things happening to children, such as people hurting them or taking them, and we are terrified. We wish that we could always keep our children right next to us like when they were babies.
But the inevitable truth is that they learn to walk and talk and seek independence from us. And as they move out of arm's reach, they move into that scary world. We want to keep them safe but, at the same time, we don't want them to be as terrified as we are. We don't want to fill their sleep with nightmares or their minds with fear that everyone wants to hurt them. So what do parents do?
A parent or adult in charge needs to know where a child is and what he or she is doing at all times. This isn't just about preventing a kidnapping. This is about general safety and kids understand that. Safety rules don't have to be scary themselves. Here are some ways to teach this rule:
- "While we're at the park, tell me if you are leaving the swings to go to the sandbox."
- "You can play outside in the back yard, but you must tell me before you go outside."
- "That's great that your friend wants to play catch with us. Let's go ask his dad if it's okay."
- "If you want to get out of bed and go downstairs in the morning, wake Mommy or Daddy first."
- "The store is very crowded. Hold my hand or my skirt so I know exactly where you are."
As children get older, the rule can be changed to suit their growing independence. For example:
- Your child should never go anywhere without directly telling a parent or adult in charge
- Plan a walking route that your child will use whenever going to the store (or school or friends house) and back
- Teenagers need to check in regularly (cell phones can be useful) and call a parent or adult in charge if any plans change
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Teach your child what to do if he or she gets lost.
- Whenever you go somewhere together, agree on a meeting place if you should get separated. Pick an obvious, easy-to-find place, preferably staffed, such as an information desk or customer service desk.
- Teach your child to identify "helping people," such as policemen or security guards, the librarian or the aquarium staff. These are the people to turn to if your child can't find you or the meeting place.
How To Explain the Scary Stuff
To keep kids really safe, though, you need to have some discussion of "strangers" with your child. Children need to know that not everyone can be trusted. This can be frightening to a child, but you can minimize the scariness with these suggestions:
- Talk about how most people are very nice, but some people have problems and aren't nice. Explain that it's hard to tell which adults aren't nice. (It's a good opportunity to begin to teach your child about racism and bigotry, too, such as by talking about how some people think bad things about others just because of their skin color.) So to be on the safe side, they shouldn't get near any person they don't know well and should never talk to a stranger (without a parent present) or go anywhere with one.
- Avoiding strangers isn't enough. Parents and acquaintances are responsible for the vast majority of both child abductions and child rape cases. Empower children to take care of themselves and listen to their instincts.
- Talk with children about how adults should ask other adults for help, not kids. If an adult ever asks them for directions or for help in finding something or someone, your child should keep his or her distance and find a trusted adult.
- Teach your child that if anyone ever grabs them or does anything to them that frightens or worries them, they should fight back: bite, poke the eyes, kick the groin. They should also scream as loud as they can. "Stranger!" is more likely to get attention from passersby than "Help!"
- Talk about "good touches" and "bad touches." Tell your child that his or her private parts are indeed private, and nobody should touch them.
- Explain that adults shouldn't ask kids to keep secrets and that if a grownup ever does ask them to keep a secret, they should tell you right away.
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More Ways To Minimize the Scariness
Make sure your child knows that you and other helping adults are always working to keep them safe. Tell them that they'll probably never have to use the things you are teaching them. Talk about it simply and make it part of normal activities and conversations. For example, bath time is a good time to talk about privacy and body parts. Or, after giving directions to someone in a car, talk about what your child should do if someone in a car talks to him. Be very concrete: Tell your child exactly which house he should run to if he gets frightened while walking home; that makes the conversation less overwhelming and helps your child know what to do.
Then, give your child a hug and change the subject to something happier. Because childhood should be happy. That is, after all, the point.
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Claire McCarthy, M.D., is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.