Most parents worry about what might happen to their children if a stranger approaches them. Yet knowing what to teach them and at what age the advice is appropriate can be confusing.

Whilst we often tell our children never to talk to strangers, in reality, this is not a very practical rule. From the moment they enter pre-school, our children will begin to be exposed to strangers when we are not around them. Some of these strangers will become their friends or teachers, some may simply remain strangers who pass through their lives, whilst others may pose a danger to them.

What can you expect children of different ages to be able to do and what situations do you need to prepare them for? What are some of the basic safety rules that every child should know and follow?

1. How Old Are Your Kids?

Children of different ages understand the concept of strangers differently. As children mature, they will also have more skills to deal with potentially dangerous situations. As such, you will need to tailor what you teach your children to their age levels.

Infants, Toddlers and Pre-Schoolers
To an infant or toddler, pretty much everyone is a stranger. Whilst they may be able to recognise people who are unfamiliar to them, at this stage they are unable to express their fears coherently and have not developed enough to be able to take any strong defensive actions on their own.

Pre-Schoolers may be able to identify strangers, but at this age they are likely to assume that all adults are friendly, responsible and can be trusted. Most pre-schoolers will automatically trust adult, even a strange one.

Children of this age should not be left alone. You should focus on ensuring that they know their names, addresses, or have some form of identity information on them. You should also tell them that if they feel uncomfortable or scared, that they should come straight back to you and tell you about it.

Primary School Students
Primary school students will be more aware of the dangers of interacting with strangers, but again, they too will tend to trust and believe in an adult. Children of this age will also begin to spend more time on their own – at school, participating in extracurricular activities, going out with friends on playdates, or even just running around your neighbourhood.

Kids of this age need to learn the basic rules of how to manage interactions with strangers and how to identify situations they should avoid. Usually, rules for kids of this age will be ones such as: Never follow a stranger anywhere, don’t accept gifts, food or drink from a stranger and if a stranger comes up to you keep a distance of at least an arms-length between yourself and the stranger.

Teenagers will most certainly understand the concept of strangers, but may find strangers to be intriguing and exciting. Teens are looking to widen their social circles and explore their independence. This makes them a uniquely vulnerable target group for strangers looking to groom, lure or stalk them.

With teens, you will need to explain the dangers which strangers such as these might pose to them. Teach them internet safety, keep the lines of communication open and be a part of their online circles and their social lives in general.

2. Helping Kids Anticipate Danger

The best way to address any kind of potential danger is to avoid it. Help your kids identify possible situations where they need to be careful in dealing with strangers.

Strangers Who Approach Them
Teach your kids not to follow a stranger anywhere. Common tactics used on kids may be ones where they are asked to help “Excuse me, I’ve lost my dog, do you think you can help me find him?” or “Granny has difficulty crossing the road, do you think you can hold my hand and bring me to my car over there?”. Yet another tactic involves unsolicited offers to help “Do you want a ride home? Would you like to come to my house for a free drink? Watch a movie?”. The final category which might be used is one when a stranger approaches your child and tell them about an emergency “Your parents were involved in a car accident, you need to follow me to the hospital now”.

Let you children know that in each of these situations, they should stand at least an arms-length away from the stranger and that they should under no circumstances follow them anywhere. They should in fact return immediately to their primary caregiver’s side, or go into a nearby shop and call home. Certainly, before following anyone anywhere, they need to let you know and ask for your permission and agreement first.

People Who Make Them Feel Uncomfortable
Tell your children to trust their instincts. If someone makes them feel uncomfortable they need to listen to how they feel and take action. If a stranger stands too close to them or tries to take them somewhere, or touches them in a way which makes them feel bad, they should act immediately.

An easy way for kids to remember what they can do, is if you tell them this mantra “No, Go, Yell and Tell”. If they don’t feel comfortable, they should first tell the person “No”, in other words, refuse to go along with what the stranger is asking of them. If they still feel uneasy they should “Go”, leave the stranger, walk away to someone they know, enter a shop nearby or to a safe place. If the behaviour still persists, they should “Yell”, draw attention to the behaviour and ask for help, and finally they should certainly “Tell” you or another responsible adult of the incident.

Answering the Telephone
Teach your children not to tell strangers on the phone that they are alone or you are occupied. Ask them to tell the person that “My parents are busy, but if you leave me your name and number I’ll ask them to call you back”. Remind your children not to engage in further conversation as they might reveal information about themselves or begin a relationship with a stranger over the phone.

Internet Safety
Teach your children about the dangers of meeting strangers on the internet. Show them how easy it can be to create a fake ID. The other “12 year old” who wants to be friends with them on the internet could just as easily be someone completely different.

Use of Public Facilities
Ask your kids to be careful when they need to use public facilities. In a washroom or a public shower, tell them to always lock the door and to refuse help from strangers. If a stranger asks them if they need help, ask them to say “No thank you, my mother will help me if I need it”. Tell them to be aware of the other people using the facility and to avoid going if they feel unsafe or uncomfortable.

3. Navigating Back to You

Finally, you need to establish procedures which will allow your kids to always find their way back to you if they get lost.

Make sure your kids memorise important phone numbers and addresses. For younger kids, ensure they have some form of identification on them. Teach them whom they can approach for help – a teacher, a policeman, the information counter or security. Tell them that if anything happens they should go to someone who is in a position of authority and to stay near where you last lost contact with each other. Talk about safe places they can go to in the event of something like a fire, or other catastrophe.

Think through all the scenarios in which your kids might get separated from you and work through a list of action plans they can initiate if and when any of these occurs. It will allow you and your children to find each other more easily if you have agreed on a series of next steps in advance.