How to Teach Anxious Children about ‘Stranger Danger’

monsterMost children have some level of fear and anxiety throughout their early lives, with many of those fears giving children the natural tendency to mistrust strangers. When it comes to the proverbial “stranger danger,” a bit of anxiety and fear is not a bad thing, although it can become detrimental if a healthy fear develops into something bigger.

KidsHealth points out anxieties through the various stages of childhood typically include:

  • Babies: Stranger anxiety is common in babies, making them cling to their parents in fear or discomfort around anyone they don’t recognize.
  • Toddlers aged 10 to 18 months: Separation anxiety can be high in this age group, making toddlers upset and emotional when they find themselves without their parents. 
  • Children age 4 to 6: High anxiety in this group can come from imaginary monsters and other things not based in reality.
  • Children age 7 to 12: Reality based anxieties hit this group, with children tending to fear being the victim of accidents, injuries, natural disasters or other horrific events they hear about from the news or other sources.

Fear of strangers can thus be a natural reaction for many children throughout childhood, although that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t reinforce safety measures. As NPR reports, you should also take note of the number of predators out to do children harm that have been people the children actually know and may deem safe.

As an NPR broadcast on the topic of “stranger danger” explained, people who are out to do harm often initially try to make a connection with the child to earn the child’s trust.

“So (the strangers) really are people they sort of know now,” the broadcast reports. “So what you really have to do is to talk to (your children) about (how) you’re not allowed to go off with anyone, even if you do know that person. If you’re in a situation where you feel like you’re in danger or you need help, you can ask for help from a trusted adult, but make sure you stay in that area. You don’t go with that adult.” 

Top Tips for Keeping Your Anxious Children Safe

“No, Go, Yell, Tell” 

The National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) says an easy way to teach your child the action plan for when they feel threatened is to memorize a short, rhyming phrase:

“No, Go, Yell, Tell.” 

If your children do end up in a situation that makes them uncomfortable, make sure they know the action plan. The best action is to just say no to any requests that make them uncomfortable. If the person continues to persist, tell your child to run, yell and tell the nearest “safe stranger” they can find.

“Safe strangers” are police officers, fire fighters, store clerks or other trustworthy adults in a public place that can help your child when needed. Point them out to your child when you two are out and about around town. Note, however, there may still be no reason for your child to accompany a “safe stranger” anywhere.

Stress Awareness of Surroundings 

Teaching your children to be aware of their surroundings and people around them at any given time is another wise move. The guest host of the NPR broadcast found out her son had been texting while walking down the block, which made him oblivious to his surroundings.

While it took the mom some time to act on it, she eventually took away her son’s phone for several weeks to instill the importance of not ignoring your surroundings.

Lesson learned? If the child wants to hang on to his phone in the future it probably was.

As another parent noted about the punishment for unsafe behavior: “(You have to) make it so huge that he would never think of doing it again.”

Discuss Suspicious Behavior

Getting your children to spot suspicious behavior is another good move, NCPC says. Suspicious behavior from unscrupulous adults can include:

  • Asking children to keep a secret
  • Asking children to do something without parental permission or outright disobeying previous orders
  • Asking children for help

Children can have very sharp and accurate instincts. Encourage your children to trust theirs, especially if the hair on the back of their necks stands up when they are around suspicious adults or in a potentially dangerous situation. Potential danger can come in many forms, such as:

  • A stranger offering candies, goodies or a ride home from school
  • Someone who appears to be following your child
  • A vehicle that pulls over to ask for directions or help
  • A stranger in the park that asks for help finding his lost dog (cliché but still used)
  • Unknown neighbors who invite your child inside for a snack or any other reason
  • Anyone doing anything that makes your child uncomfortable

Take Advantage of Teaching Moments

If scary stranger news does hit the TV screen, take it as a cue to talk to your child about what happened. Enhance the conversation by reinforcing what your child would do if he or she were ever in a similar situation.

One parent that participated in the NPR broadcast made it a regular ritual to ask her child at the end of every day if anything happened to make him uncomfortable or afraid. While the responses she received didn’t include anything truly hazardous, she had the pulse on her child’s activities nonetheless. She also made it clear he could talk to her at any time about anything.

Be the ‘Uncool’ Parent

Sorry, mom and dad, but keeping your anxious child safest may mean being a bit “uncool.” Being “uncool” generally means enforcing strict curfews, doling out heavy consequences for unacceptably unsafe behaviors, and keeping a keen eye on your child at all times. Your “uncool list” can also include an updated list of all your child’s passwords and usernames for social media, email and other online accounts as well as regularly monitoring Internet and phone use.

Being “uncool” may certainly not make you your anxious child’s best friend, but it can make you a protective parent that knows how to keep your child safe.


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