Teaching Young Children About Interacting with Strangers

Children need to learn how to identify and respond to dangerous situations.

“Stranger danger,” the idea or warning that all strangers can potentially be dangerous, is a common slogan among parents and young children. However, teaching “stranger danger” can actually be more harmful for children in certain situations because they might avoid asking someone they don’t know for help if they are in trouble.

The generalization of “never talk to strangers” doesn’t fully educate children about how to keep themselves safe. According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, the majority of abduction and sexual abuse cases are committed by someone the child knows. 

Teaching Children About Stranger Interaction

Children need to learn how to identify and respond to dangerous situations. Parents, caregivers, and teachers should tailor safety messages for specific situations and use role playing so children can be confident in steps to take. KidSmartz offers a list of safety scenarios to practice.

Some ways to help children include:

  • Teaching them to stay put and not wander away if they become lost. Staying where they are increases children’s chances of being found unless that place becomes too dangerous because of severe weather or another potentially threatening situation. In that case children need to go to the nearest safe spot and wait for rescuers. They also can make noise either by yelling, blowing a whistle, or attracting attention in some other way. This may help bring someone to their rescue.
  • Helping them recognize the warning signs of suspicious behavior, such as when an adult asks them to disobey their parents or do something without permission, asks them to keep a secret, asks children for help, or makes them feel uncomfortable in any way. Sometimes children feel like they need to agree to what adults are asking. Make sure that your children know that it is okay to say no to an adult in a dangerous situation.
  • Teaching them about “safe strangers” or people they can go to for help if they need to, such as a uniformed police officer, an adult with kids, a teacher, a store clerk, etc.
  • Giving them a “safe code word.” If an adult wants your child to get in their car, they must know the safe word.
  • Giving them acceptable and appropriate control of their bodies. Don’t scold children for refusing to kiss or hug others if they don’t want to. This can send mixed signals and might give them the impression that it’s ok to be forced into an uncomfortable situation.
  • Teaching them that it’s ok to stand up for themselves and tell people “no” if something makes them uncomfortable. Explain that they should tell you about these kinds of incidents as soon as possible. 

Having these conversations with children will equip them with the awareness and confidence they need to handle potentially dangerous situations. 

 

 


Series Navigation

The Developmentally Appropriate Parenting Series highlights several early childhood topics to support parents and caregivers who are caring for young children. Use the list below to navigate through each series topic:

Learn more about the series.

 

Picture: A young baby looks up at the camera.
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