Stranger Alert

    How and When to Talk about Safety

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    While the holiday season is an exciting time for children, it may also be a time of anxiety and uncertainty for them. Interacting with unfamiliar people during shopping excursions, visits to Santa Claus, or trips to see their great Aunt Edna whom they barely know can be exhausting for children. So how should we talk to our children about strangers without overwhelming them even more?

    Parents should start by helping children distinguish between an actual stranger and an acquaintance, or someone they haven’t seen in awhile. Kate Moffitt of Powhatan, the mother of three, uses family photographs to prepare her children for holiday visits. “I have photos of all the relatives, which we go over and talk about before going up to Rhode Island for the holidays,” Moffitt says. “A lot of the people we only see once a year, so the kids would not remember them without pictures.”

    Moffitt initially had a discussion about strangers with her children before a trip to Disney World. “I taught them stranger danger and if they got separated from us to go find a mommy like me with children,” she recalls. “We also talked about never going anywhere with anyone no matter what they said and I practiced giving them a scenario and what they are supposed to do in return like yell ‘no,’ say ‘stranger danger’ or yell for help. The kids had fun going through different scenarios with me.”

    Still, it can be difficult to broach the subject, especially with young children.

    “I think it is hard to talk about scary things like children being abducted without scaring them,” Moffitt says. “I try to keep it light with role-playing, but I also want them to know that it can be dangerous and to never ever go away with someone, no matter what they say.”

    Stacy Pawluk of Midlothian reminds her three children about not talking to people they don’t know whenever they are headed into a store. “That elicits the question ‘Why?’ and I have to explain to them that there are people who are not nice and that they want to hurt children,” Pawluk says. “It’s my job as a mommy to keep my children safe and with me at all times so that some of these people, who do bad things, can’t take my children.”

    Bethany Geldmaker, program director for early childhood health with the Virginia Department of Health, agrees that Parents should always keep their kids in sight, whether running errands, at the mall, or at an amusement park.

    “There is really no such thing as good or bad strangers, only those who are not immediate family,” Geldmaker explains. “For example, there may be a neighbor on the street with whom the parents have an acquaintance but that doesn’t mean that the parents know all about the person’s background or habits or interests, or even how they might care for a child. That’s why the most important rule is for parents to never leave a child alone, in a house, in a car, or with someone who they don’t know very well.”

    Parents should also be mindful of their child’s cues when dealing with people who are unfamiliar to them. “Often at holiday times, friends and relatives that are not all that well known to a child might give them an overly enthusiastic hug or kiss or squeeze or pinch their arms,” Geldmaker notes. “Often, it’s clear kids aren’t enjoying that type of attention. Parents should step in and politely but firmly tell the friends or neighbor that the child really doesn’t know them and that he or she is uncomfortable.”

    That includes Santa. If a child is nervous about sitting on Santa’s lap, try encouraging him or her to stand next to him instead.

    When talking to young children about strangers in general, moms and dads should keep it simple in a language that the child understands, suggests Henrico County Police Lt. Ramon Jackson, the former commander of the school services unit for the county. Officers in that unit Give frequent talks to elementary school students about strangers as part of the DARE program.

    “You don’t want to be too elaborate with them,” Jackson states. “Just ask them the simple question, ‘Do you know what a stranger is?’ Then you’ll find out exactly how much your child knows, and how you want to proceed.”

    Though teenagers know about the dangers associated with talking to strangers, it is still important for parents to have conversations with them about the subject, especially when dealing with people they may meet online.

    “With teens, open communication is vital,” Geldmaker says. “Talk with teens about turning up their radar in certain situations…Many teens today have cell phones; encourage them to call if they’re unsure about how to get out of a situation.”

    Geldmaker points out that “the stranger talk is not much different than it needed to be years ago. Caution and making good decisions are still as important as ever.”

    She goes on to say that the risk factor for kids has changed over the years for a number of important reasons. “Years ago, many kids grew up in very stable neighborhoods where people lived next to one another for 20 years. There wasn’t as much mobility so there weren’t as many strangers. Schools and shopping areas often were close by. Technology, such as the Internet and the social networking capabilities it has spawned, has expanded the risk, but whether you are meeting a stranger in the school playground, down the street, or on the web, the same rules apply,” says Geldmaker. “Never leave small children alone, teach children to recognize dangerous messages and behaviors and keep the line of communication open.”

    And like Moffitt, Pawluk suggests keeping it light, no matter what the discussion topic. Parents also should try to work in conversations about strangers, interaction and safety with some frequency rather than saving it all for one ominous stranger talk.

    “I think that approaching the subject casually and often with just small reminders and not overreacting is important, no matter what the subject is,” she says.