Age-appropriate guidelines for keeping kids safe.
If your anxiety is growing over your child's safety these days, you are not alone. Parents everywhere experienced a collective ripple of fear over the recent high profile kidnappings and murders of Danielle van Dam and Samantha Runnion, among others. And the safe return of Elizabeth Smart did little to alleviate those fears.
In fact, abductions by strangers are very rare indeed, notes parenting expert Jan Faull, M.Ed., a parent educator and an expert columnist for LHJ.com and BHG.com. And abductions of pre-elementary-age children are, thankfully, largely unheard of.
According to a 1990 U.S. Justice Department report on the topic of abducted and missing children, the great majority of missing-child incidents concern preteen and teenage kids. Many of these turn out to be runaways. The next-largest group of kids fall under the category "lost, injured, or otherwise missing children." It is only a small minority of kids that turn out to be victims of abduction, and of those, most are "family abductions." Abductions by a stranger, or "nonfamily abductions," as in the case of Samantha Runnion, are not at all typical, according to the FBI National Crime Information Center's National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). But they are the cases where the child is most in danger of injury or death.
So, what can you do to protect your child? The NCMEC has built their campaign around three easy-to-remember words: No, Go, Tell. According to the campaign, when approached by a stranger who is asking for their help, children should remember:
- No.Yell "No," as loudly as possible. This ensures that those around them know, or hear, that something is wrong.
- Go. Run away from the stranger toward home, the nearest adult or neighbor the child trusts, or to a safe house (if the neighborhood has one).
- Tell. Tell the adult they run to -- a parent, neighbor, or babysitter -- what happened.
Here are additional age-appropriate tips for keeping your child safe:
Children under age 5 should always be under the direct supervision of a parent or guardian.
- Help your child memorize his full name, address, and phone number.
- Teach your child how to call home from a pay phone.
- Make sure your child knows to call 911 in emergency situations.
- Let your child know she has certain rights of privacy.
- Teach your child the difference between a "good" touch and a "bad" touch.
- Teach your child to recognize the types of "low-risk" individuals he may ask for help if he is lost -- including police officers, firefighters, school crossing guards, elderly women, and women accompanied by children.
- Make sure your child knows another adult, besides her parents, whose help she may seek if she is hurt.
Tweens (6-10 years old)
Kids over the age of 5 begin to test boundaries. Grant your child enough freedom to help him develop confidence and independent thinking. However, be careful not to let your child get into a situation he can't handle. Parenting expert Faull recommends playing "what if" games to see how your child might react when confronted with challenging situations.
- Encourage your child to pair up with a friend whenever she is away from you. Predators rarely focus on kids who aren't alone.
- Require your child to check in with you before he leaves one site where he is playing and heads for another.
- Make sure your child knows never to get into a car without your permission and to stay well away from strangers' vehicles.
- Encourage your child to be a bit suspicious of strangers' motives.
- Teach your child that the proper reaction to being accosted by a stranger is to yell "No," and run away.
- Require your child to report to you when anyone -- even a relative -- asks your child to keep a secret or offers her money or gifts. Similarly, your child should always let you know if someone -- known or unknown -- wants to take her photograph.
- Let your child know that people sometimes use tricks to lure children away from their homes. Make sure your child understands that adults should ask other adults rather than children for directions or help finding something, such as a lost puppy or kitten.
- Consider making up a "secret password" only the family knows. This way, if someone approaches your child, saying he was sent by you or another family member, the child can ask for the password.
- Teach your child "home-alone" safety (see our Home Alone Quiz).
- Teach your child to recognize the types of "low-risk" individuals she may ask for help if she is lost, including police officers, firefighters, school crossing guards, elderly women, and women accompanied by children.
- Teach your child to trust his "gut" instincts. If your child is feeling unsafe or uncomfortable, he should run and seek help.
- Make sure your child knows another adult, besides you, his parents, that he might confide in if for some reason he felt he couldn't come to you.
Preteens and Teens
If you've laid the groundwork for safety throughout her childhood, you have only to reinforce it as your child grows up. All kids seek increasing amounts of independence as they mature. And there's no set age for a child to be granted increased freedom. As the parent, you must gauge your child's maturity and judgment.
- Pairing up with a friend remains the rule. Make sure your kids know that they are at risk when alone.
- Though kids this age may think they're in control, let them know that they may be in even more danger of predators at this age. Share real-life stories from the news to make them know that these risks are real.
- Educate your child about sex and sexuality. A naive child is vulnerable to sexual advances by predators.
- Make sure your child is aware that drinking (and drugs such as ecstasy) can affect judgment and make your child vulnerable.
- Advise your child that nothing he owns -- no jacket, shoes, jewelry, or money -- is worth risking a life for. Your child must know that if he is approached by someone who threatens him over personal items such as these, the only safe thing to do is to give them up.
- Make sure your child practices Web safety. (See our Internet Safety Tips for Kids.)
What Parents Can Do
You can begin by setting up a system of checks in your home and family. When you leave the house, always tell your children where you are going and when you'll be back. When you ask the same of them, they will have a good example to follow. Also:
- Encourage your kids to talk. Experts say kids who speak with their parents openly and regularly develop higher levels of self-esteem and assuredness, which makes them less vulnerable to predatory behavior.
- Know your kids' friends and each friend's parents. Have contact lists readily available.
- Know your neighbors. They will look out for your child.
- Establish a parental "backup," -- someone your child can go to in case of an emergency where a parent is not available.
- Do you live in a neighborhood with a block organization? If there are safe houses, make sure your child is aware of them.
- Do your children attend afterschool programs or day care? Inquire about the screening procedures at these places your child attends without you.
- Don't buy clothing that advertises your child's name. A stranger may use this information to give your child the impression that he is a friend.
Morgan Bailey is a freelance writer living in New York whose articles have appeared in Parenting magazine, Parenting.com, and Family.com.
DNA Kits, Resources, and More
These nonprofit foundations, honoring children who were victims of abduction and murder, offer education resources, tips for reporting a missing child, and how-tos for assembling your own child-DNA kits.
These government sites offer education resources and statistics regarding missing children.
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