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Keeping Children Safe

Stranger Danger - Safety and Your Child


Parents wonder “when is the right” time for teaching personal safety to their children.   You will find that your child’s personal safety is a lifelong concern for you, and it will go way beyond teaching them about “stranger danger.”   The process of teaching them about personal safety will be based on their age and developmental stage; on your comfort level of the topic you are sharing; on open communication that is appropriate for their developmental level; and on the safety behaviors you model for them.

How to Begin the Conversations
An infant is totally dependent on adults for his safety.  As he grows during that first year, he begins to recognize all the adults in his normal routines - parents, caregivers, relatives, friends - anyone who has regular contact with your child and you – become familiar.  Your infant creates an attachment hierarchy to people in his world.  Your child’s personality and temperament will determine whether he is cautious or outgoing with people he does not know. Infants and young toddlers do not understand the concept of a stranger.

At about age two, your child will be able to have conversations with you about safety - why not to go anywhere with a stranger and how to say no when something or someone makes her uncomfortable.  It is important to not embellish the description of a stranger as someone who is mean and scary, for in reality, most strangers are well-intended and look like most other adults.  For your toddler, it will also be important to support your child’s intuitive sense when a situation feels uneasy, and let her know it is OK to act on those feelings. Until she is able to speak up for her own safety, parents and other adults in her trusted circle of attachment must model safety by being vocal around strangers about which interactions are acceptable with your child.

Your Role as a Parent or Childcare Provider
Adults set the rules for safety for young children.  The rules may be about bath water temperature and depth, appropriate clothing for weather, how to use playground equipment, or stranger safety. For toddlers, they look to you to show them and tell them – in the moment – which individuals are safe.

Here are some examples of in the moment stranger situations. Parents with clear personal boundaries and clarity around safety are not afraid of offending or embarrassing a stranger who is not using good judgment:

  • At the mall, a person at the food court offers your child a lollipop.
    • Your response and action: “Please do not offer my child candy, she doesn’t know who you are.”  Do not allow the lollipop to be given to your child.  If you were unable to prevent the lollipop from being taken, give it back, deliberately, to the stranger.
    • Logic in your action:  Really, how many children do not want candy from anyone? Rather than placing responsibility on your child for her childish action, focus on the adult who should not have offered the candy.  Don’t allow the candy to be given, even if the adult asks you.  This reinforces the rule of not talking to or taking things from strangers without placing responsibility or punitive words on your child. 
    • So, there are exceptions:  If a person in a particular position – doctor, dentist, hair stylist, bank teller, kind person at church that you know, etc. – offers candy or a prize after a visit, let your child take the offering without comment.  As you’re’ walking away from this stranger it’s okay to remind him that we can take candy or prizes from (person’s name) because we know her and she always gives treats to kids when they go to the doctor, etc.  It’s good to add “we trust her” at the end of this scenario. 
  • An adult neighbor at a summer picnic asks your toddler for a hug as you say good-bye to the group.  Your toddler is shy, he appears nervous, and pulls away.
    • Your response and action: “He doesn’t want a hug right now. It’s OK for him to say he doesn’t want one.”  If you must, get between the adult and your child to prevent them from picking them up or bending down and hugging them.
    • Logic in your action: You are teaching your child about personal boundaries.  Your toddler is permitted to say “no” to anything that makes him feel uncomfortable when it comes to strangers.  Even relatives and close friends do not get to give or get hugs when your toddler does not want to give them.  Uncles, aunts, grandparents, siblings, parents – no one gets to hug without permission.  It might make the adult feel better to say something like, “I can see you don’t want to hug me now.  That’s okay.  I love you no matter what.”
    • So, there are exceptions:   In certain settings, like a parade or amusement park, if a costumed character puts out their arms for a hug, there is no harm in allowing that if you are standing nearby.  Many children will be scared and won’t want the hug, in which case the above response and action applies.  (Most professional “characters” know not to force hugs, but rather to hold their arms open and down to receive a hug from a child.)  Until about age 4, your child will not understand that it is not really Cinderella, herself, they are hugging.  When they figure it out, they will probably feel awkward hugging someone dressed as Cinderella.
  • At a party, your toddler won’t leave your lap, even for a cupcake.
    • Your response and action: “There are a lot of people here.  You can stay with me if you are feeling shy or scared.”  If you want to be mingling with your friends at the party, best not to bring your toddler.  Don’t try to be free of her, pointing out all the other children playing, etc. – that never works and just ramps up the anxiety for her and you.
    • Logic in your action: It’s a good thing for your child to latch on to you when she’s not comfortable in a situation.  It’s normal for people of all ages to seek a safe home base – you – when in a room full of strangers.  It is especially for a child in a room full of adult strangers.   In this situation a parent must not resort to trickery or distraction to get her to leave your side.  Your child will not trust that there is a safety net for her if she does try to expand her personal boundaries.  She needs to know that if anything seems odd or scary, you will be there with open arms to re-create safe space for her.  
    • No exceptions... especially around holiday themes: Skipping parties with ghosts, vampires, Santas, or any over-the-top costumes and masks is okay.  There are plenty of years for these celebrations.  There is often noise and sugar-fueled snacks present to add to the stress level. You can still celebrate with just your child in your home at their age appropriate level, or by gathering with people your child knows and trusts in a calmer setting. 

Keep This Topic on Your Radar
Remember, parents are the number one safety educators in the home.  This task does not seem so daunting and overwhelming if you find other parents who are actively seeking to get input on parenting issues.  You don’t need anyone critiquing how you are raising your children, however, you and your children will benefit from your openness to learn ways of parenting from positive and healthy resources.   Keep coming back to the UUFA Infant, Toddler, and Preschool Gatherings where we share healthy ideas and support parenting efforts – and because we love having you with us!  You can also check out these resources that may have some ideas about babies, toddlers, and preschoolers and safety, but are mostly for children a wee bit older.   How to Be Street Smart     Amber Watch – Preventing Child Abduction

**The information in this post is meant to be used to begin conversations with parents about their children and safety.  The UUFA is a religious community where we believe that personal safety is an important part of children’s spiritual development.  While we are a religious community that supports all that we encounter in our lives journeys, we are not a substitute for professional counseling or therapy.  If you have questions or feel a need for more support than our gatherings offer, please contact the UUFA office.



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