Keeping Kids Safe - Without Scaring Them
Last reviewed and revised by Faculty of Harvard Medical School on October 24, 2011
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
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:
As children get older, the rule can be changed to suit their growing independence. For example:
Teach your child what to do if he or she gets lost.
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:
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.
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.