Human touch—hugs, kisses, stroking—are a basic part of healthy lives. Such warm and intimate relationships between young children and parents are essential for healthy development. That's why it's tricky to explain to a young child that some kinds of touching are wrong.
Teach your child to say “no” firmly if anyone tries to touch her in a way that is uncomfortable or frightening. The parts of her body that her swimsuit covers are especially off-limits. Tell her to inform you or a trusted grown-up if she experiences any unwanted touching.
Instead of telling your children to avoid strangers, talk about situations to avoid. Young children don't have a clear concept of what a stranger is. They might think someone who appears unattractive or threatening is a stranger but not someone who is attractive and kind or friendly. The “avoid strangers” message overlooks the more likely possibility that they might be harmed by someone they know.
Tales from the Safety Zone
A television crew went to a park to find out how well kids have gotten the message about not talking to strangers. The pretty anchorwoman approached individual children, explaining that she had lost her puppy and needed help finding it. Nearly all the children readily agreed to accompany her, even into bushes. The parents and caregivers of the children who were interviewed afterward expressed shock at how easily the kids were fooled.
Another early lesson to impart to your child is the importance of keeping adults informed of her whereabouts. When your little one goes outside to play in the back yard, for instance, she should let you or her caregiver know first. Acquiring this habit early will make it more likely that she'll remember, when she's older, to keep you informed about where she's going, when, with whom, and when she'll be back.
Teach your child never to get into someone else's car, even someone he knows, without checking with you first.
Don't put your child's name in a visible spot such as on the outside of a backpack or baseball cap. A stranger can use this information to trick your child into thinking she's dealing with someone who knows her: an acquaintance of your family, for instance.
Probably every parent has had that moment of terror, often in a store, when a child wanders out of sight. Almost all are located eventually, but not before a few embarrassed folks are summoned on the public address system.
Teach your child not to wander around looking for you but to go to a clerk wearing a store badge and ask for help. As your child gets older, pick a landmark, such as a clock tower, information booth, or fountain in the middle of a shopping mall, as a central place to meet in case the family gets separated.
Tales from the Safety Zone
Wal-Mart has a procedure called Code Adam that is used when a parent reports losing a child. Employees go immediately to exterior doors until the child is found. This prevents the possibility that a stranger could sneak out with the child. The program is named for kidnap victim Adam Walsh, whose father founded the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
When It's Not a Stranger
It's hard for kids to believe they can be abused by adults whom they know and like. Relatives, teachers, coaches, ministers, or family friends are people children look up to, and rightly so in most cases, but children should understand that they have a right not to be touched or treated in a way that makes them uncomfortable.
Usually, touching by friends and relatives is an innocent gesture of affection, but if your child is uncomfortable with the tickling from a sibling, the arm punches from a buddy, or hugs from an uncle, for example, she can learn to say so in a polite but firm way. Otherwise, the person will assume the behavior is okay.
Warn your child to be especially wary if a person asks her to keep some activity between them a secret or threatens to harm her if she tells. Reassure your child that it's okay for her to lie that she'll keep the secret if that stops the unwanted behavior, but afterward she must tell you or another trusted adult. Help her understand that telling is the only way she can protect herself from the unwanted behavior in the future. Work at open communication with her at all times, so she knows she can come to you and won't be blamed or made to feel guilty.
If your child comes to you, listen carefully. Too often, parents fail to believe their children when the complaint involves someone the family knows. It's up to you to protect her when she's unable to protect herself.