Nothing strikes more fear into parents’ hearts than the thought of a stranger taking or hurting our children. But before you break out the cotton wool, experts have shared their best tips to help kids stay safe (and put parents’ minds at ease).
Firstly and most importantly, they say we need to know that children are rarely abducted, abused or otherwise harmed by a stranger. Children’s Safety Australia director Kim Jackson says urban myths abound about attempted or actual kidnappings. “Parents spend a lot of time thinking about the risks of abduction, but the risk of harm from someone they know is greater,” she says.
Dr Freda Briggs, author of Smart Parenting for Safer Kids, says when children are asked about strangers, “he is always a man, looks evil, wears a black balaclava, leers and steals children from their beds”. “However bear in mind that most child sexual abuse is within the family’s social environment and very few children are abducted by strangers,” she says.
1. Create family passwords
There’s a story doing the rounds on Facebook about a boy who, when approached by a stranger, asked the man for a password. When the man couldn’t provide the password the boy’s mum had given him in case she needed to send someone else to pick him up, the boy knew he should flee.
It’s hard to know whether it actually happened, but Ms Jackson says that safety trick is spot on. “It’s something we do advocate … to come up with a code word that is only known within the family – you don’t tell friends, you need to be a member of the family to know it – to highlight to the child it will only be people with the code word that will be picking them up,” she says.
Dr Briggs, also child development professor at the University of South Australia, used this scenario in a study with primary school children aged five to eight. “(We) found that without a school child safety program, all of the children would have accompanied a stranger who said that mum was in hospital and had sent the person to collect them. They said they thought the stranger was being kind and mummy was really sick. When children had been exposed to the national child safety program, none of them said they would accompany him,” she says.
2. Set safety rules
Teach them that some parts of their body are theirs, and theirs alone, and shouldn’t be touched or looked at by anyone (other than in special circumstances, such as when seeing a doctor). Drum in the importance of not approaching strangers’ cars or going anywhere with people they don’t know – but you may need to be persistent.
“We found that children feel safe when close to home,” says Dr Briggs. “They went off with strangers (actors employed by Channel 7) who sought help for looking for a lost puppy. Their parents were watching inside having previously told them not to talk to strangers and being convinced that they wouldn’t. They also accompanied strangers from shopping centres to car parks to help someone supposedly disabled carry his bags. A six-year old climbed into a car to show the way using a map and a 12-year-old climbed into the back of a van. All of these children had been taught not to talk to strangers.”
3. Talk body language
Ms Jackson says it’s important that children know as early as possible that their body belongs to them and what they do with their bodies is their choice. And talking openly about body parts is an important part of this.
“Name private parts of the body as well as public parts so it’s really natural for kids to identify them,” she says. “Parents can feel embarrassed about talking about them so kids pick up that it’s taboo and they feel embarrassed to talk about it or don’t know the names, which means they can’t talk about it.”
4. Create a safety hand
“If someone has hit them or is bullying them or abusing them, they need to know to go to a safe place, tell an adult they trust,” Ms Jackson says. “If the adult doesn’t listen, keep telling other people until someone does. Encourage them to have more than one person to trust.
“To help them remember, get a blank piece of paper, trace their hand and say, the thumb is someone we live with, and the fingers are four people outside the home – relatives, neighbours, a teacher, etcetera. Who is in the child’s life who they are in contact with regularly or have the ability to contact by phone or email or text? Ideally face to face is best, but that doesn’t have to be the case.”
5. Talk about what being unsafe feels like
Help children identify the difference between feeling safe and unsafe. “I might say to them, ‘When I don’t feel safe my knees start to shake or my palms get sweaty or my hair feels like it’s standing on its end, or I have butterflies in my tummy’,” Ms Jackson says. But distinguish between feeling unsafe while having fun – for example riding a bike down a steep hill – or feeling unsafe doing something unavoidable – for example going to the dentist – and feeling unsafe because they are really in danger.
For more tips, see Children’s Safety Australia’s key children’s safety messages.
How do you teach your children personal safety? Tell us below.