We don’t throw the term around quite as much as we used to, but ‘stranger danger’ is still as important as ever. We chatted to Brooke Beddall, operations manager at Little Zak’s Academy – the ‘childcare with a difference’ that aims to provide excellence in early childhood care and education in a safe, welcoming and nurturing environment – about the importance of stranger danger and the best ways to approach the tricky topic.
Generally speaking, stranger danger is the term we use to teach children of the dangers associated with connecting with strangers, and the importance of being cautious if they’re approached by one.
“Today, the term ‘stranger safety’ is more relevant,” Brooke explains. “It’s more about teaching children protective behaviours, and what they should do if a particular unsafe situation arises.”
Studies show that strangers aren’t as likely to pose a risk for children as people children already know, so a combined approach to stranger danger is best. It should be the responsibility of both parents and institutions like childcare centres and schools to help children understand how to be alert to risk, abnormal behaviours of others and unsafe situations, and report potentially unsafe situations.
“With the educators also able to explain abnormal behaviours and situations to the children this then opens doors for the children to feel safe and be able to communicate back with their educators if they ever need help or assistance,” says Brooke.
While some responsibility does fall to teachers, a lot of teaching can be done at home, too. It’s key that children learn to identify abnormal behaviours and how to protect themselves. In the age of social media, these protective skills play an important role in allowing children to deal with potentially unsafe situations.
“Teaching children basic ‘stranger safety’ and the different ways to react in situations should begin from an early age – as early as the toddler years,” says Brooke. “Children as young as one can be taught simple verbal reactions like ‘stop, I don’t like it,’ and it’s important that they understand what this means and when to voice these words.”
As children become more verbal, social and mature, Brooke explains, more age appropriate conversations should be had to establish safety rules. More mature and more verbal children can be taught about inappropriate touching and the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ behaviours in different situations.
These older children are also becoming more independent and social in public, so different scenarios should be taught to help them understand certain risks and the appropriate reactions. Special picture books can help a lot here, like ‘My Tricky Eye Spy’ and ‘My Underpants Rule’.
Ultimately, the aim is for children to be able to identify situations where they are unsafe or uncomfortable.
“It’s vitally important that children can identify and react in unsafe situations,” says Brooke. “Children should be equipped to exercise simple safety rules and they should feel comfortable with implementing these rules to reduce any risk of harm. Teaching children to identify behaviours that seem strange or abnormal is the key.”
It’s less about knowing ‘too much’, and more about teaching the appropriate rules for particular age groups. Communicating ‘stranger danger’ in certain ways can be dangerous in itself – if parents continually enforce the rule that all strangers are dangerous and harmful from an early age, this can negatively impact the development of a child’s social skills and confidence.
“Age-appropriate language that is also honest and clear is the best way to teach ‘stranger danger’,” says Brooke. “Use simple words and have your children role play ways they should act in risk situations – this will help their understanding from a young age.”
Openly discuss things on a day-to-day basis with your children, from helping them learn the difference between known and unknown people to recognising the risks involved in being in a shopping centre or needing to go to a public toilet. You can also go through how to react if they get lost, or are approached by an unknown person.
“Teaching your children about unknown people that are safe – like teachers, police and community-volunteers for example – helps them who they should seek help from if they feel unsafe,” says Brooke. “Even when your child matures and becomes better at identifying potentially unsafe situations, you should still be aware of who your children are communicating and interacting with and alert in unsafe situations.”
What children need to know…
- How to identify unsafe situations and abnormal behaviours, and the basic rules to protect themselves or get out of a situation if these risks arise.
- How to use words to express what is happening and how they are feeling.
- The difference between good and bad strangers or unknown people.
- That an unknown person should never put you in a situation where they try to get you alone or away from familiar family or friends.
- That no one should ask you to keep a secret from your parents or family.
What parents need to do…
- Open daily communication that is age appropriate for your children, so that they feel safe to talk to you about situations that may arise.
- Teach safety and protection, not fear of unknown people.
- Know who your child is with and where they are at all times
- Identify risks and unsafe situations, and teach your child how to do the same so they know what they should do if they arise. For example: use code words only you and your child would know.
- Know what your child is watching and who they are talking to online, as well as the appropriate apps for different age groups.