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A Blog from Your Kaiser Permanente Pediatricians in Northern California

Child hugging mother

Teach Your Kids How to Stay Safe Around Strangers

One sunny day years ago my first child, a happy shaggy-haired 3-year-old, with a fistful of vegetables he had picked in the backyard garden, stood knocking on the kitchen door. I looked at him through the glass and said jokingly, “What’s the magic password?”

His answer became – and still is – our family’s own password. Magic in its ability to protect my children.

As a parent, you want to keep your children safe. You make sure they wear a helmet. You strap them into car and booster seats for what feels like forever. You tell them not to talk to strangers.

Rules for using helmets and booster seats are always a good idea. The rule against talking to strangers isn’t always as obvious. It can even confuse your child:

  • You may have taught your child to be helpful, so if a friendly adult asks them to help find a missing puppy, they are likely to want to help the grown-up.
  • A smiling stranger may convince your child that it’s OK to talk with him.
  • There are times when children need to talk to a stranger, for example, if your child is lost, they’ll need help.

So it’s important to talk with your child about dangerous situations and how to handle them. Help your child understand that grown-ups ask other grown-ups for help – they don’t ask children.

  • If a stranger asks your child for directions, asks to take their picture, or asks them to look at something, they should quickly walk or run away and tell a grown-up they do know what happened.
  • If a stranger asks your child for help finding a lost pet, they should quickly walk or run away and tell a grown-up they do know what happened.
  • If a stranger tells your child that there has been an emergency or that something has happened to you, they should find a grown-up they do know to confirm the story.
  • If a stranger calls them by name, it does not mean he knows your child. To keep this from happening, don’t write your child’s name on the outside of clothing or backpacks where a stranger could read it.

Make sure your child knows that it’s OK to make a fuss and yell if they’re scared. Teach them to yell, “This isn’t my father (or mother)! Help me!” Bystanders watching a child struggle with an adult may assume that the adult is a parent with a misbehaving child if they’re not told otherwise.

Children need a plan for when they get lost. Teach them to ask a grandmother or a mother for help. These people are far less likely to be dangerous. They usually want to help children and are easier for kids to recognize (since they’re with their own children). You may also want to tell your child they can ask a police officer or firefighter for help.

When you go someplace where you might get separated, agree on a place to meet. For example:

  • At a grocery store you could agree to meet by the checkout counter with the number 1 on it.
  • At an amusement park, meet by the big tree at the entrance that has a sign or statue your child will remember. Tell them to not go there alone, but to get a mother or grandmother to help them get there.

Don’t avoid talking about stranger safety because you’re afraid of scaring your child. They already know that some things in life are scary. Talking about these things will make them feel more confident.

Talking with your child will:

  • Encourage them to tell you if any adult has made them uncomfortable or hurt them in any way, even if they know the adult.
  • Reassure them that you will never be mad at them for telling, and that you will always try to keep them safe.
  • Teach them to trust their instincts.

Talk about how to deal with getting lost and stranger safety the way you talk about wearing helmets, seatbelts, and sitting in booster seats. A child is much more likely to be hurt by a car than a stranger.

Have a family password or phrase – something so obscure that only you could possibly know it. This can be useful if:

  • You ever find it necessary to send someone to retrieve your child for you. Teach your child to ask for it even if they know the adult.
  • Your child is home alone and need to know when it’s okay to open the door.

Our family password has never been used, but remains a powerful tool for all of us. It also brings a happy smile to my face as I remember my son’s earnest face looking up at me, asking to be let in the house with his harvest.

Other Resources for Parents

National Crime Prevention Council: 

What to Teach Kids About Strangers

Disclaimer: If you have an emergency medical condition, call 911 or go to the nearest hospital. An emergency medical condition is any of the following: (1) a medical condition that manifests itself by acute symptoms of sufficient severity (including severe pain) such that you could reasonably expect the absence of immediate medical attention to result in serious jeopardy to your health or body functions or organs; (2) active labor when there isn't enough time for safe transfer to a Plan hospital (or designated hospital) before delivery, or if transfer poses a threat to your (or your unborn child's) health and safety, or (3) a mental disorder that manifests itself by acute symptoms of sufficient severity such that either you are an immediate danger to yourself or others, or you are not immediately able to provide for, or use, food, shelter, or clothing, due to the mental disorder. This information is not intended to diagnose health problems or to take the place of specific medical advice or care you receive from your physician or other health care professional. If you have persistent health problems, or if you have additional questions, please consult with your doctor. If you have questions or need more information about your medication, please speak to your pharmacist. Kaiser Permanente does not endorse the medications or products mentioned. Any trade names listed are for easy identification only.