Worried about predators, both strangers and those you might know? Here are 7 smart ways to protect your child from predators.
You’ve heard the advice a zillion times: “Don’t talk to strangers!”
Now we know better, as that advice isn’t always so effective. For one thing, 90% of child sexual abusers are people we know and trust. Second, not all strangers are terrible. When kids are lost, they may have to rely on a stranger’s concern and kindness. And it isn’t one warning, a “big talk.” Instead, it’s a constant and evolving conversation.
Protecting our kids isn’t about telling them ‘Don’t do this’ and ‘Don’t do that.’ Instead, it’s a labeling our private parts by their correct anatomical names. Respecting kids when they say “no.”
7 smart ways to protect your child from predators
That toddler is now a four-year-old, a child better able to follow directions. How can I continue this conversation about safety now that he’s aware but still young?
1. In public, mention what employees look like
“You see how the employees are all wearing white shirts and have name tags around their necks?” I pointed out to my son as we entered The Getty Museum. “If you get lost and need to tell someone, you only talk to someone who has that same shirt and that same name tag.”
I’ve been practicing this with my son, pointing out what employees look like. I describe telltale signs such as name tags and uniforms. I describe where they’re located or what they do. “Talk to the people who sell the fruits and vegetables,” I tell him when we go to the farmers market.
I also tell him that if he can’t find an employee, his next best bet is someone who looks like a mom. He should be more discerning about whom he should ask for help.
2. Stay put, no matter what
Another reason “Don’t talk to strangers!” doesn’t always work is because these creepy strangers we’ve painted aren’t your typical predators. They’re friendly, approachable, and trustworthy. They look like they know what they’re doing, and they’ll work to warm kids up to them.
Tell your child to stay in the same place without wandering. I tell my son if anyone claims to be a friend of ours saying he’ll take him to find us is not a friend. All he has to say is, “I’m staying put.” If the man is a concerned adult, he’ll notify an employee or even wait with a child for his parents to pick him up. Not take him someplace else.
3. We have no secrets
A few months ago I threw my husband a surprise birthday party. I didn’t mention anything about secrets, because we don’t keep any. We talked about surprises instead. I said my husband has no idea, but nothing about keeping things secret.
Why the hush-hush about secrets? Predators tell children to keep secrets, as if this is a special bond between him and the child. Or he may encourage the child to keep a secret to protect his parents’ feelings, or to not disappoint them.
Which leads me to…
4. Watch your reaction
Sometimes kids feel like they need to keep things a secret for fear of how we’ll react. This is why it’s so important to watch your reactions around your child. Can he can tell you something disappointing and you’ll still convey you love him? Where you make a distinction between a child’s actions and himself? (“You’re a bad boy” versus “You did a bad thing.”)
Encourage relationships where kids’ actions don’t define them nor how much you love them. I like to tell my kids I love them no matter what and give the reasons: I love you even if you’re throwing a tantrum and even when you’re upset at me. I love you when you’re sleeping. And I love you all the time for who you are.
Should any person try to convince him to keep a secret because his parents won’t love him if he doesn’t will sound untrue.
5. Cut inappropriate behavior
No one wants to be paranoid, especially around the people you love and trust. Still, your kids should know what’s appropriate behavior and what’s not. Predators don’t usually pounce on a child—they work their way up, they groom, they earn trust. And they test the waters.
I’m confident no one’s preying on my kids, but cutting behavior I’m not comfortable shows what’s okay and not. Should anything seem out of the ordinary, they know better than to assume it’s normal.
Make sure lines aren’t crossed. Certain people have a role in our lives. That’s why teachers shouldn’t be lavishing kids with gifts. Or relatives and family friends shouldn’t be too generous with their physical affections. And kids don’t have to hug everyone.
It’s important to let kids know about their private parts and not letting anyone touch them there. But predators start slow. They might offer a massage, or kiss them on the lips, or hang out alone in a separate room.
A ton of this is cultural, of course. But knowing your family, put your foot down on behavior you wouldn’t want your kids to assume is normal.
6. Give and respect your kids’ privacy
“I want privacy,” my four-year-old will say.
This could be anything from using the bathroom to writing on his worksheets. And we honor each of his requests.
We’ve also been teaching him how to bathe and clean up after himself as much as possible. We want to send the message that he’s boss of his body.
After all, we’re establishing boundaries. We’re saying we won’t hover over you even when you ask us not to. Should anyone try to invade his privacy and personal space, he’ll know something is off.
7. Adults can be wrong
I’ve long been a fan of apologizing to our kids. Doing so not only respects our kids but shows them how fallible we are as well. We’re not always right. It’s okay for kids to say ‘no’ to adults when they believe in something.
Let’s say an adult tries to sway them to do something they’re not comfortable with. I’d rather kids trust their gut, even if it means going against authority. And I reiterate to my son that should anyone cross the line, to tell me no matter what.
How did I start thinking about this topic again? First, Katie McLaughlin mentioned disturbing statistics about sexual abuse.
Then Vanessa revealed her own abuse as a child by a trusted family member. She writes in “I Am One in Four”:
I will never know the person I would have been.
In a way that person died when I was 7 years old.
How much differently would I have turned out if I could have continued a blissfully innocent childhood? If years of my childhood hadn’t been dedicated to keeping a secret and worrying constantly?
Thinking back to that sad, anxious little girl who spent night after night for years pacing the upstairs hallway, waiting for the perfect moment to share that painful, horrible, ugly secret… it just makes me sad for her. My heart breaks for her.
The image of that little girl pacing the hallway, trying to work up the nerve to tell her parents a terrible truth. No child should ever go through that.
We can’t protect our kids from everything. Even the worst things happen to the kindest and most vigilant people.
Still, you can develop habits that make it difficult for others to harm him. Things to lessen those chances, and swift action should any need to be taken.
The best advice Vanessa suggested? Don’t have just one big “talk.” This isn’t a one-time conversation you have with your kids and you’re done.
No, it’s an ongoing conversation. One that starts before your child can talk or understand what you’re saying. It means respecting their bodies and boundaries. Listening. Watching our reactions. Setting expectations.
And less children will pace hallways, wondering whether to reveal an ugly truth or not.
Your turn: What are some other ways to protect your child from predators, both strangers and those we know? Share your suggestions in the comments.