Talking to Kids About Staying Safe

Kidnapping headlines strike fear into the hearts of all parents, but it's helpful to remember that the actual incidence of abductions and overtures is statistically very rare. Contrary to popular belief, abductions are generally not by strangers, but by people known to the children.

When an incident receives extensive media coverage, watch television with your children. Discuss the event and talk about how they should respond if they find themselves in a threatening situation.

However, experts recommend that parents don't wait for a publicized kidnapping to have this conversation with their children—start early and emphasize prevention.

  • Discuss safety issues in a calm manner, reassuring and matter-of-fact way, as you would discuss other safety issues—such as seat belts, traffic rules, etc.
  • Have ongoing discussions. Talk openly about strangers, and emphasize:
    • Never go anywhere, get in a car, answer questions, or accept anything from someone you don't know.
    • Remember that certain people, although you don't know them personally, can be sources of help – police officer, sales person, a parent with children, a guard in the mall.
  • Make safety issues an everyday part of life. Create scenarios and role play (even when not an emergency) such as "What if somebody you don't know comes to pick you up at school?" of "What would you do if a person you don't know in a car asks you for directions?"
  • When feasible, remind your child to use a cell phone and check in with you at regular intervals.
  • Teach strategies to follow if child feels in danger. Here are some examples:
    • The No-Go-Tell system:
      • No – say no 
      • Go – leave the situation, and
      • Tell – immediately tell an adult what happened
    • For an older child, use the 3Ws:
      • Who I'm going with
      • Where I'll be, and
      • When I'll be home
  • In an extreme situation in which children may be forced into a car, they should be told to yell, scream and struggle the whole time and try to get into the backseat. If they're put in a trunk, they should kick out the taillights.

What to Expect at Different Ages:
Young children can learn simple facts, such as their name,address and phone number and what to do if they become separated in a public place.

Elementary school children should know the expected and safest route to and from school. Help child identify safety checkpoints of adults and places in case he/she feels threatened—stores, school, libraries, neighbor. Organize a buddy system and have children go to school and other activities in a group.

'Tweens' and teens are more reliable about assessing potential danger and more likely to be in unsupervised situations. The 3W system is helpful at this age.

At all ages, parents should monitor their child's internet activities. Watch who they are communicating with online. (Read The Internet at Home: Making it Work for You and Your Kids for tips for providing guidance and supervising you child's internet usage.)

The overall goal of discussions of prevention should be to instill confidence in children so that they'll feel in control of what happens to them and capable of handling life situations.