Children need clear instruction about how to deal with strangers

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Story by Barbara Laufer
Fri, Jun 3, 2011
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MUNICH — Nearly every parent wants their child to be polite and open when dealing with other people, but when children are old enough to go out on their own, parents have no control over how they will react if a stranger approaches them.

This makes it very important for parents to talk to their children about what they should do when someone they don’t know asks them questions or otherwise tries to engage them. They should understand that sometimes they are allowed to be impolite.

Many parents worry that their child could be confronted by someone they don’t know who intends to do them harm. Statistically, this occurs very seldom. Most cases of child abuse and violence against children are in fact committed by members of the child’s family or by people known to the family.

Nevertheless, experts advise parents to talk with their children about what they should do if they are approached by someone on the street, at a bus stop or train station or in another public place.

From the moment the child is allowed to be alone outside the house, parents should talk to their kids about the fact that there are people who might want to harm them, said psychologist Ulrike Herle of Munich, who is also a specialist in personal security. As a rule, children are able to understand such things from the age of 4 if it’s put in words they can grasp.

For example, parents can tell their children that while most adults are good and interested in the child’s well-being, not all adults are like this. Therefore, children should be told to keep a distance from strangers. Parents should initiate the conversation on this topic themselves if it doesn’t come up automatically, said Andreas Mayer of a crime prevention organization in Stuttgart, Germany.

“It is always helpful to get a book on the subject and look at it together or, when in doubt about the child’s understanding, take him or her to an organization that specializes in providing parents with support in such matters,” Mayer said.

It’s important to go over a few clear rules with the child, Mayer added. They should not be left thinking there’s someone evil lurking outside their home, rather they should be taught ways to deal with particular situations, Herle said.

Parent and child should first define who is a stranger and who is not by naming a number of people who are trusted and then tell the child specifically whose car they are allowed to get into, said Mayer. In addition, parents should talk with their children about things they are allowed to do as a family, but not with or in front of strangers.

Herle added that parents and children should agree on a few things. One is that if something should happen to the child that he or she believes was not OK, the child agrees to tell his mom or dad. No matter what it is, the parents agree not to scold the child. Give the child other straightforward instructions such as, “If someone tries to do something to you, you may defend yourself with words and by kicking and screaming.”

Carmen Kerger-Ladleif, an instructor at a Hamburg, Germany, organization for child protection, uses as an example the penchant many children have of wanting to undress in front of other people.

“In this instance parents must make it clear to their children that this is OK at home and in front of other close family members, but not when a visitor comes to the home and not outside,” Kerger Ladleif said.

The message that the child must understand is that their body is something special that belongs to them alone. On the other hand it’s also a way of communicating to the child that there are boundaries they must respect.

“A guest who comes for coffee might not want to see a naked child,” she said.

Parents also should not neglect to talk about situations in which a stranger might want to lure a child away by offering sweets or asking if they would like to see something appealing like a kitten. Experts advise parents to give their children clear rules if they ever find themselves in such a situation. They should be told not to give out any information about themselves or their family, never to go along with a stranger who offers such things and never to open the home to such people without asking their parents first.

“However, you can’t give children a concrete warning about everything,” said Kerger-Ladleif. Therefore, it’s important to bolster the child’s confidence in his or her own gut feeling and encourage the child to listen to his or her inner voice.

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