Talking to Children About Strangers



“Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever
to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” ~ Elizabeth Stone

Heights? Small spaces? Public speaking? Name a phobia, nothing is scarier than being a parent. From the moment they arrive, we are under their spell and transfixed by the terror that they could one day be in harm’s way. Worry becomes your constant companion. I’d like to say, it eases in time; alas, I still worry even though mine are in college. But I no longer worry about strangers, or my children’s ability to stay safe. Here are a few ways you can empower your children and maybe sleep a little easier at night.

“Stranger education” can be done in a way that children are aware and empowered, not afraid. Abductions by strangers are rare, about 115 per year (Center of Missing and Exploited Children). More often, children wander away from parents, which is also terrifying. Teaching children how to identify strangers should be a part of a bigger conversation about staying safe and what to do if they are lost.

Young preschoolers not ready to completely understand this, but by 4, they begin testing their independence. They are learning rules and have probably heard the word “stranger.” Now is the time to start talking about “safety rules.”

“Safety Rule No. 1” is “Stay close to Mommy (or the grown-up in charge).” Ask them to repeat it. Make it a game until it is second nature.

Start talking about “stranger concepts.” Keep it simple. A stranger is someone you don’t know. During your daily activities ask, “Is the man at the grocery store a stranger (yes)? The postman (yes)? Remind them that not all strangers are “good” or “bad”—simply someone you don’t know, and we don’t talk to people we don’t know.

Give them a plan: “If you are ever separated from Mommy in the store, go to the lady who works at the cash register. Ask her to call for Mommy. Stay with her until I get there. Don’t go with a stranger.”

Teach them…

  • …if a stranger tries to talk to him/her, run straight to Mommy or the person taking care of them.
  • …the names of other “safe people” in their world, like Grandma and Grandpa, policemen, fireman, store employees (identified by their uniform). Point them out as you see them.
  • …how to find their way home.
  • …their own full name, then your full name, then your address and phone number.
  • …that no one can touch their body unless they are taking care of them (example: doctor or parent). They are in charge of their bodies.

Praise them for trusting their intuition about people and possible safety concerns. “Is it safe to touch something hot?” “No, right!” “Is it safe to run in a parking lot?” “No, right good job!” “Is it safe to pet dogs we don’t know? Dogs that are strangers?” “No, you are right again!”

Get your child an ID card. Most DMVs will be able to issue ID cards for your child. It includes your child’s physical description, age, address, photo, fingerprints, and parent contact information. Request 3 copies; one for your child to carry, one for you; and, if you wish, one that can be filed with the police department.

Put simply, “If it’s someone we don’t know? We don’t go.” Bonus—this comes in handy when they are teens, too. When they ask to go out or spend the night with friends you don’t know, “If you don’t know them, they don’t go.” Trust me, it works! Just remember, as scary as this is, be calm in your conversations. Children take their cues from us. If we are positive and confident, they will be, too.


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