The ST Guide To... talking to your kids about stranger danger

Although cases of stranger danger raise alarm and fear, most abductions usually involve people who are familiar with the child, says Ms Christina Teh, a lecturer in the diploma course for early childhood education at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. PHOTO: ST FILE

When talking to young children about strangers who could pose a threat to them, parents should strike a balance between taking precautions and avoiding being over-protective.

Stranger danger is the awareness communicated to children that sometimes people you do not know may have the intention to harm you.

In recent months, an eight-year-old disappeared from a wedding party she was attending with her parents in the French Alps. Maelys de Araujo's fate remains unknown after she was last seen in the early hours of August 27. Police have charged a local man, who was at the wedding, with kidnapping though the suspect denies involvement.

Although such cases of stranger danger raise alarm and fear, most abductions usually involve people who are familiar with the child, says Ms Christina Teh, a lecturer in the diploma course for early childhood education at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

The adage about never talking to strangers may be counterproductive.

Ms Teh says: "It would be impossible to identify all 'bad' and 'good' strangers. It is important not to frighten children unnecessarily as we also want them to be sociable individuals."

Here we offer some tips for parents on ways to address the issue with their children.

1. When to start teaching kids about stranger danger

Parents should start talking to their child about stranger danger as soon as he/she is able to understand what a stranger is, says Ms Sarah Chua, a parenting specialist at Focus On The Family Singapore.

"This depends on the individual child's maturity but it can be as young as two years old," she says.

Ms Teh says: "As young children learn to make sense of their world through play, parents or caregivers can create opportunities to have children role-play scenarios such as the parent reminding their child about being safe, or a stranger approaching them."

This helps the adults assess the child's understanding of the discussion, she adds.

2. Safe strangers and safe places

Young children can be taught to approach certain types of adults for help, such as police personnel, security officers, and a parent with their own children, says Ms Chua.

Ms Teh adds that parents can also teach their children that there are places where they can be safe, in school or at venues they can seek help at, such as a police station or an information counter at a shopping mall, if they get lost.

3. Teach children to be aware of suspicious behaviours

Parents can teach their young children to recognise and reject suspicious behaviour.

Examples include:

- When a stranger says mum or dad asked him to take the child home as the parent is busy;

- When a stranger offers to buy or give the child something;

- When a stranger says the parent is ill and asks the child to come with her at once; or

- When an adult follows or trails the child.

4. How to avoid being vulnerable

There are general rules parents can adopt to impart to their children an awareness of the need to keep safe, says Ms Teh.

Parents should know their children's whereabouts at all times, including whether they are going out with an adult familiar to them. Kids should learn about "safe adults and safe places" and be aware of their surroundings, Ms Teh adds.

There is safety in numbers so children should not wander on their own to remote or secluded areas.

Parents can even teach their children a "secret code", which could be a word or number, signalling safe situations, according to Mr Clement Ong, an associate therapist at Family Life Society, a charity that promotes family and marriage.

Older children should know emergency numbers such as 999 for the police and 995 for ambulance and fire services, while younger ones can have their parents' contact numbers on a tag in their bag, says Focus On The Family's Ms Chua.

Precautions established when children are young can reap benefits when they are older.

For example, keeping safe online applies more to older kids who are more likely to be approached by strangers online, but guidelines surrounding the use of the Internet can be set from a young age.

Monitor the websites children visit; place the computer in a common area and not in their own rooms so parents know the sites their kids are surfing; and use child-safe software and filters, says Mr Ong.

5. Teach children how to get help

Teach children how to react to suspicious behaviour by being firm in saying 'no'; by approaching police, security officers, other parents or caregivers for assistance, and describing the unsafe situation they are in; or getting the attention of others by shouting "Help!" or running away from the suspicious stranger, parenting experts say.

6. Help kids hone their instincts

Ultimately, there are no foolproof methods in ascertaining suspicious intentions.

"Parents can help children to trust their natural instincts," says Ms Chua.

Remind the child to get help if he or she feels uncomfortable or bad, such as in a situation when strangers get too close or touch them inappropriately, says Mr Ong.

Also teach them not to judge by appearances as an attractive stranger or someone who seems to be a good person may still have bad intentions.

"A key warning sign would be when strangers do not take 'no' for an answer, and try and pressurise the child to say 'yes'," says Ms Chua.

Teach the child that it is not the norm for an adult to ask a very young child for help, adds Mr Ong.

7. Teach kids how to say no

In training children to be assertive in saying "no" in cases of possible stranger danger, parents need to model certain behaviours in everyday life.

Mr Ong says: "Many times, children have difficulty in saying no. Parents have a big role to play here. For example, if parents give in to what the child wants all the time, that will give the child the idea that saying no is not the right thing to do."

He says parents should "celebrate the 'no's as well."

He cites a scenario where, when tasked with household chores and homework, a child decides to do his work first, even though the parent might prefer him to attend to the chore first.

When the parent accedes to a request from the child that is "reasonable and firm, when he is able to stand up for himself", "that will give the child the idea that it is okay to be assertive and to have personal boundaries," says Mr Ong.

"That's how they will learn to deal with strangers as well."

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