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.
So, how can we protect our kids?
To start, it’s not about having one “big talk” or warning and calling it a day. It’s a constant and evolving conversation, of slipping in the topic when it feels appropriate to do so.
7 smart ways to protect your child from predators
Still, the thought of harm coming to our kids can send many of us feeling anxious and scared. While we can’t protect them from everything, we can still equip them with tools to make these horrible scenarios less likely.
I know as a mom, I want my kids to know about safety when we’re out and about as well as the boundaries they’re entitled to have, even among loved ones.
Here are some of the tips that have helped us talk about these tricky topics, even from a young age:
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 kids as we entered a museum. “If you get lost and need to tell someone, talk to someone who has that same shirt and that same name tag.”
I do this with my kids, pointing out what employees look like. I describe telltale signs such as name tags and uniforms and describe where they’re located or what they do. “Talk to the people who sell the fruits and vegetables,” I tell them when we go to the farmers market.
I also tell them that if they can’t find an employee, their next best bet is someone who looks like a mom. They should be more discerning about whom they should ask for help.
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2. If lost, stay put
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.
I tell my kids that, should they get lost, they should stay in the same place and not wander. And if anyone claims to be a friend and says he’ll take them to find their parents is not a friend. The only response to that is, “I’m staying put.”
After all, if the person was a concerned adult, he would notify an employee—not take them somewhere else.
3. Have no secrets
One year, 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 had no idea about the party, but said nothing about keeping it a secret.
Why should you not have secrets? Predators rely on children keeping a secret, as if it was 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 she can tell you something disappointing yet still know that you love her, no matter what? Where you make a distinction between her actions and herself? (“You’re a bad girl” versus “You did a bad thing“)?
Encourage a relationship where her actions don’t define her nor how much you love her.
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 your child to keep a secret because her parents won’t love her if she doesn’t will sound untrue.
5. Stop inappropriate behavior
No one wants to be paranoid, especially around the people you love and trust. Still, your child 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.
Cutting behavior I’m not comfortable with shows my kids what’s okay and not. Should anything seem out of the ordinary, they know better than to assume it’s normal. Most importantly, they know they can listen to their gut and say something, even if no ill will was intended.
Make sure lines aren’t crossed. After all, certain people play certain role in our lives. Listen to your gut when you notice an adult lavishing your child with gifts galore, when others in his role likely wouldn’t. Or when it seems like your child feels uncomfortable with physical affections from others.
And while it’s important to let kids know about no one touching their private parts, predators start slow. They might offer a massage, or kiss them on the lips, or hang out alone in a separate room. Put your foot down on behavior you wouldn’t want your child to assume is normal, and listen to your gut.
Similarly, call private parts by their correct anatomical names, not silly ones to giggle about.
6. Respect your child’s boundaries
“I want privacy,” my kids will say.
This could be anything from changing clothes to writing in a journal. No matter how simple, we honor that request.
After all, we’re establishing boundaries. Should anyone try to invade your child’s privacy and personal space, she’ll know something is off. She also understands that she has a right to her privacy, and that no one can force her to give it up.
Similarly, respect your child when she says “no.” For instance, put a stop to sibling teasing after someone has said “no” or “stop.” To ignore sends the message to the teaser that he doesn’t have to stop, and the teased that her voice doesn’t matter.
7. Adults can be wrong
I’ve long been a fan of apologizing to kids. Doing so not only respects them, but shows them how fallible we are as well. We’re not always right. It’s okay for them 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 that they trust their gut, even if it means going against authority. And I reiterate to my kids that should anyone cross the line, to tell me no matter what.
I read a blog post where a mom revealed her own abuse as a seven-year-old by a trusted family member. She thought about the sad, anxious little girl who’d pace the upstairs hallway, “waiting for the perfect moment to share that painful, horrible, ugly secret.”
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, we can develop habits that make it difficult for others to harm them. Things to lessen those chances, and swift action should any need to be taken.
The best advice? Don’t have just “one big talk.” This isn’t a one-time conversation.
No, it’s an ongoing conversation. One that starts before kids can talk or understand what we’re saying, and often said not with words, but by our actions. It means respecting their bodies and boundaries. Listening. Watching our reactions. Setting expectations.
And hopefully, fewer children will pace hallways, wondering whether to reveal an ugly truth or not.
Get more tips:
- Stranger Anxiety in Toddlers: 5 Things Every Parent Should Know
- How to Run Errands with Kids (And Not Go Crazy)
- “What Would You Do?”: Questions You Need to Ask to Keep Your Child Safe
- How to Stop Your Toddler from Running Off in Public
- Are You Teaching These Life Skills Your Child Needs in Adulthood?
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