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Thursday, June 9, 2011

How to Talk to Children about Interpersonal Safety: A Guide for Parents and Educators

[Written by:  Kirsten Stoutemyer, Ph.D.]  In the United States, there are approximately 797,500 children reported missing each year; and 58,000 of those are the direct result of a child being kidnapped by a non-family member. Parents, educators, and children are not helpless in the face of these statistics. Many children escape abduction attempts because they have learned to use safety strategies and to respond with assertiveness in the face of an attempted abduction. Child Quest developed the Our Kids Are Safe Kids kidnapping prevention program to address the need for children to learn and practice safety strategies.

Being a parent or educator brings joy – and responsibility. It is rewarding, challenging, and sometimes frightening. Each day presents new challenges for educators and parents to invent creative and loving ways to discuss some of life’s more difficult topics. Preparing children to deal effectively with a world in which attempted child abduction and abuse are possibilities requires a team approach involving teachers, parents, community organizations, local politicians, law enforcement, and many others.

Children are more likely to learn safety behaviors if they are given the opportunity to practice what is introduced in Our Kids Are Safe Kids. It is never too early to begin an ongoing conversation with a child about safety. Even preschool children can learn their names, telephone numbers, addresses, and to call 911 in an emergency. School-aged children can learn more complex safety skills. We encourage you to adapt the practice of safety behaviors to the sophistication of the children in your life.

Focusing on Prevention

Among the greatest challenges facing teachers and parents is developing a way to talk to children about interpersonal safety – without scaring them. It frightens children to hear about the horrible things that can happen to them if kidnapped. By the time children are able to read, they have already been exposed to these horror stories on the front pages of magazines at the grocery store, TV shows, and online – so, it is not surprising that they often become terrified of being kidnapped themselves. Learning and practicing safety rules reduces a child’s fear, and results in a child who can assertively use safety behaviors to deal with dangerous interpersonal situations.

We can approach children with the issues of abduction the same way we approach them with issues of fire or earthquake safety. We can assure children that the chances of being kidnapped by a stranger are quite low, and we can teach them some techniques that will keep them safer. By focusing on common-sense abduction prevention strategies, rather than on the horrible things that might happen to them, we increase our children’s ability to deal with dangerous situations and reduce their fears.

Creating Safe Communications

Parents and educators are foremost among the people a child might turn to for help. It is important to lay the groundwork for dialogue about abuse and kidnapping. Parents and teachers can do this with young children by encouraging them to talk about their feelings. Take the time to ask about a child’s day, and about the people they encountered on and/or offline. Ask if there are any problems they are having, and be open to listening. By creating an open dialogue with children – especially about the things that make them scared, embarrassed, or sad – you make it easier for them to tell you about potentially dangerous situations they’ve encountered with other children, teenagers, and adults.

Let your children know that there is a difference between a good secret and a bad secret. A good secret is a secret that is fun to keep, like a surprise party or gift. A “bad secret” is a secret that feels bad to keep, or a secret about a touch – because touches should never be secret. Ask them to inform you if anyone tells them to keep a bad secret, and stress that getting help when they need it doesn’t make them a “tattle tale.”

In order to ensure that a child will disclose sexual abuse if it should occur, it is important that parents and teachers use names for the private parts of a child’s body that do not suggest that private parts are “bad.” If a child thinks that it is not all right to talk about their private parts, they will be less likely to discuss sexual abuse should it occur.

One of the hardest things about creating a supportive atmosphere for communication is allowing a child to say “no” to an unwanted touch or an unwanted invitation – even when we know it is not really dangerous. Children need to be able to say “no” to an unwanted pinch on the cheek without getting in trouble in order to be able to say “no” to assertively dangerous situations.

Teaching Assertiveness

Parents and educators have the power to create a supportive atmosphere for children to practice assertive communication and interpersonal safety. Children can learn to “use their words” at an early age, and can be encouraged to speak in a clear, strong voice rather than whining or screaming. Reinforce assertive communication by complimenting children on the way they worded a request or stated their opinion, even if their request is not one you can grant.

Encourage children to actively think of solutions to everyday problems, and to think out the logical results of those solutions. Helping kids to think through situations, and to consider the pros and cons of different courses of action, will give them a good foundation to build on when faced with a variety of situations, including dangerous ones.


Teach children how to do a safety yell. A safety yell comes from deep in the belly, and is loud. Show them how a safety yell is different than a scream. You might teach them to yell, “No! This is not my parent!”

Struggling can increase a child’s chance of escape in an abduction situation, and there are some physical self-defense techniques that children can use successfully, despite their small size. If you decide to introduce your child to self-defense, contact a local self-defense organization to find a class appropriate for children. It is important to talk with children about when it is appropriate to use self-defense techniques.

Having Clearly Stated Rules

It is important that parents and teachers clearly state their safety rules both on and offline. Take the time to talk with children regularly about what your safety rules are whether it be walking home from school or surfing the net. Let them know who can pick them up from school or activities, explain how they are expected to check in with you, and what your family guidelines are for using the Internet and social media responsibly. Older children can handle more complexity in safety rules than young children. Your rules will depend in part on a child’s age – and in part on your values. What is important is that your children know what your safety rules are.

More prevention education programs and safety information at

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