Stranger Danger

May 21, 2009

What to Teach your Children

OTTAWA – In light of recent events involving the abduction of eight-year-old Victoria Stafford in Woodstock , ON , the Canada Safety Council urges parents and guardians to teach your children about strangers, and how to act in certain situations.

In 2007, there were 60,582 missing-children cases in Canada . There were 576 cases of children wandering off, and 285 cases of abductions by a parent. Three-quarters of all cases were runaways. Only 56 (less than one per cent) involved kidnappings; in most of those cases the kidnapper was a relative, friend, or person known to the family. This implies that telling children not to talk to strangers is simply insufficient advice. Although children should be wary of strangers, abductions are usually carried out by individuals known to the child, not strangers.

When parents give their children a general warning such as “never talk to strangers” they are running a risk. At some point in time, their children may need a stranger’s help and they have to be taught the difference. A good example of this predicament is the case of an 11-year-old boy who was lost in the woods. When volunteer-strangers searching for him came close to finding where he was, he was frightened and deliberately hid from them. This story ended on a happy note and the child was eventually found, but one can see the need for clarifying and understanding the message of “stranger-danger.” Children must learn to trust their instincts and when in doubt, they should seek out an adult that they trust.

Nothing replaces close supervision of children, especially for pre-schoolers who are unable to identify threatening situations. When children start to develop social skills and judgment, they can be taught how to respond to different real-life circumstances. One of the most valuable lessons to give children would be to practice “what if” scenarios. Help children identify the appropriate and safe responses when they are at risk, such as getting lost in a mall versus getting lost in the woods, being approached in the park or being offered a gift. Also, remind children that adults would not ask a child for help without the approval of a parent. Role-playing scenarios that have children act out the proper reactions (including loud vocal statements such as “You are not my father! Let me go!”), can give them confidence to react in real-life situations.

These imaginary scenarios are an opportunity for children to learn to identify people that are safe to approach (e.g. a uniformed officer, a store clerk or a mother with children). They also present an occasion for parents and children to look at other strategies such as having a password. Finally, a child should know his/her name, address and phone number in case of separation. This information should not be made obvious on lunch boxes or knapsacks. If a stranger speaks to a child using his name, the child may mistakenly assume that he/she is a friend.

What Parents Can Do

Children need to develop habits and attitudes that will protect them from the real threats and dangers they may face.

What to do if they are lost or in danger — They should stay put (or in hazardous conditions, find the nearest safe spot), try to attract attention, and wait for a rescuer.

Where they live — Once children are in school, have them memorize their name, address and phone number in case they become separated from the family.

When someone makes them feel uncomfortable — Whether it’s someone they know or not, children should be taught to trust their instincts and to seek out an adult in whom they can confide.

Whom to ask for help if they get lost — For example, a uniformed officer, store or restaurant staff, information booth or mother with children.

How to respond to situations — Practice “what if” scenarios as mentioned above. Many families use passwords; children are to ask anyone picking them up for the password. If the proper password cannot be provided, the child must follow their regular daily routine.

The Canada Safety Council encourages parents to give their children age-appropriate positive messages about safety, bearing in mind how youngsters may perceive their world.

Source: Royal Canadian Mounted Police - National Missing Children Services 2007 Reference Report.

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For more information, please contact:

Valerie Powell
Communications and Media Program Coordinator
Canada Safety Council
(613) 739-1535 (ext. 228)