The concept of “strangers” isn’t easy for a child to wrap their head around. On one hand, kids are taught to be respectful when they meet new people. On the other, they are taught to be wary of those with bad intentions. The tough part is knowing the difference.
Over time, kids gain the maturity and experience to use insight and instinct in their interactions with new people. Until then, it’s important for parents to openly communicate with their children — and help them know how to react in sticky situations.
“Parents need to define who is in the family’s circle of trust,” says Dr. Resham Batra, a pediatrician with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “Then, they need to role-play different scenarios so kids know how to respond when faced with strangers. You don’t want to scare them, but instead, teach them who they should trust and who they shouldn’t.”
According to Dr. Batra, parents should start the conversation when kids are between 3 and 5 years old. By then, kids are more social and can better understand the message. “Many babies and toddlers have ‘stranger danger,’ which is completely normal for kids that young,” says Dr. Batra. “Make sure that your child is ready to socialize before teaching them how to do it.”
Get the conversation started by laying down the following ground rules:
- Don’t go where I can’t see you.
On the playground, at the store, even in your own backyard — make sure that kids stay aware of where you are at all times. Remind them that if they can’t see you, you can’t see them — and until they are old enough, they need to stay visible.
- Get permission before going anywhere with anyone.
It’s important for your child to check in with you before leaving your sight, even if it’s with another adult. No matter how close that adult may be, make sure your child knows it’s a strict family rule to let their parent know where they are going, and with whom.
- Don’t take anything from anyone.
It can be tempting for a child to accept gifts or food from others, and can sometimes cloud their judgment about someone. If a child knows they need to ask you before taking what’s offered to them, you have better control over who is connecting with them and why.
- Tell a parent if someone makes you uncomfortable.
Perhaps a friend or neighbor asks your child to keep a secret, go somewhere or talk about something irregular. Kids need to know this is not OK. Teach them it’s acceptable to leave a situation they don’t feel OK with — and tell you about it immediately.
- Check with parents before talking to another grown-up.
Have a hard rule about checking in with you — instead of deterring your child from talking to adults altogether. You don’t want to convey that all strangers are bad people, but instead, make it part of the process that you know exactly who they are talking to and when.
- If you get lost, stay close and find someone who can help you.
When kids get lost, they can be fearful and vulnerable. Make sure they know you’ll never leave them, so they shouldn’t go looking for you. Instead, children should stay close by and never, under any circumstances, go anywhere with anyone. Teach them to identify someone they can trust to help — like a store clerk with a nametag or a woman with children.
The most important thing to remember is that communication is key — communication that should extend past playgrounds and apply to online strangers, too. Keep conversations open and frequent, and be acutely aware of everyone your child knows or talks to.