Regardless of our desire to supervise our children all of the time, this is not possible and won’t help develop their self-confidence or independence. We need to teach our children about their personal safety, while moving past our own fears to avoid passing them onto our children.
Ultimately, we need to find a balance, enabling them to develop the confidence to use their own decision-making skills, so they may learn to recognise a potentially dangerous situation without becoming overly fearful. Our approach to teaching our children about their personal safety is dependent on their age and personality. A shy child may need encouragement to talk to new people, whereas a less cautious child may need to be reminded more frequently of the potential risks of wandering off and speaking to people they don’t know.
The notion of ‘stranger danger’ strikes fear into many parents, yet strangers are actually less likely to harm or abduct our children. Until relatively recently the idea of stranger danger has been somewhat sensationalised and has exaggerated the real danger posed to children. It is thought that the fear of stranger danger can be passed onto our children, and in an attempt to protect them, we may inhibit them and make them anxious in a dangerous situation, and possibly prevent them from asking for help. Abductions by strangers account for only a small percentage of kidnappings. Most children who go missing have been taken by a relative or a person known to them. Incidents of abuse are also much more likely to be perpetrated by a person known to the child, such as a relative, neighbour or friend.
WHEN TO INTRODUCE CHILD SAFETY TO YOUR CHILD.
At around four years of age or when you feel your child has some sense of who is a stranger, is the best time to introduce the subject. At this young age it is somewhat easier to watch your child as they will always be with you or another trusted adult. However, it is a good time to establish some non-negotiable rules and guidelines for when they are playing outside or when you travel to crowded public places.
- Never talk to strangers on your own.
- If a stranger approaches you, don’t talk to them, call mum or dad right away.
- Never accept sweets or gifts from strangers.
- Remind them that not all strangers are good or bad, kind-looking strangers can be dangerous and that it can be very difficult to decide who is safe.
- Never get into a car with a stranger and even if they know the driver – always ask permission from mum or dad.
- Never help a stranger if they ask for help. Always call mum or dad.
- Reinforce that you will never ask a stranger to collect them or pass on a message.
When teaching older children about their personal safety, many now believe that we shouldn’t teach them to avoid speaking to all strangers, and instead recommend safe strangers whom they can turn to for help; such as a policeman, shopkeeper, waitress, or a mother with children of her own.
Before taking a trip to a public park or busy city centre, establish some rules such as a meeting point if they become separated from the rest of the group and reiterate the list of safe strangers they should approach. Help them to learn their full name, address and phone number. Before expecting your child to make their own judgements, get to know how your child and see how they make decisions in low-risk situations. When you’re out and about, you can ask them who they think is a safe stranger to approach if they become lost. Children need to be given lots of opportunities to use their developing skills, enabling them to become more independent and do things on their own.
HELP PREVENT ABUSE.
Just thinking about the possible dangers to our children can be very unpleasant for parents, but it is extremely important to teach our children some simple rules in order to keep themselves safe. A very simple way to show our children that they have the right to say no, is to not insist that they hug or kiss relatives good-bye when it is clear that they don’t want to.
Teach your child that their body belongs to them and the names of their private parts and how it is not OK for adults or other children to touch them there. You can help your child to identify behaviour which is unusual. Explain how they should never be asked to lie to their parents or disobey their parents, even if they know the person who told them to lie. Try to discourage your child from keeping secrets, by saying there are no secrets between them and mum and dad. For a young child it is simpler to explain how there should be no secrets. As they grow older, explain to your child the difference between good secrets and bad secrets in terms they will understand. A good secret might be what we got granny for her birthday present, and a bad secret will make them feel unhappy, sad or uncomfortable. Advise that they shouldn’t be told to keep a bad secret and they should always tell mum or dad.
Show your child that is good to trust their own instincts. For instance, if they are ever in a situation where they are made to feel uncomfortable or unhappy, tell them it is OK for them to say no and leave the room, seek help from another adult and to tell them what happened. Let them know that nobody is allowed to make them feel hurt or frightened.
Make your child a priority and sure that you make you have regular one-to-one time together, when you aren’t busy doing other tasks and are 100% focussed on them. This time will allow them to let go of any minor issues that may be worrying them. Give them the confidence to know they will be taken seriously by listening and acknowledging their concerns, however trivial they may seem. They will feel more comfortable opening up to you and will approach you in future when they have something bothering them. Children who are confident that will be taken seriously are more likely to speak up about problems they may be having, whether it is a minor issue or something more serious such as abuse or bullying.
Trust your own instincts if you feel your child is withdrawn, upset or worried and try to re-establish a connection. Try to talk to them and ask if they are worried about anything. Remind them that you will always love them no matter what and are always there to listen if they want to tell you anything. If you feel your child is holding back, remind them of the other adults whom they trust and can speak to such as an aunt or grandparent.
USEFUL HELPLINES AND BOOKS FOR CHILDREN AND ADULTS:
www.childline.ie Call: 1800 66 66 66 (Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) Text ‘talk’ or ‘bully’ to 50101
My body belongs to me: A book about body safety by Jill Starishevsky
Some secrets should never be kept by Jayneen L. Sanders and Craig Smith
www.ispcc.ie The ISPCC have a variety of materials and toolkits to support parents and schools in dealing with child safety issues.
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(Originally published in Mums & Tots Winter issue 2014/15. Image courtesy of Master isolated images @freedigitalphotos.net)