Talking to Children about Personal Safety
As recent media attention has refocused its lens from the distant Kosovo crisis to tragic shootings in our own Intermountain back yard, we are reminded that peril doesn’t just stalk faceless foreigners in war‑ravaged netherlands. Neither does it confine itself to drug addicts caught in the crossfire of a drug deal gone bad. Deranged and heartless criminals can strike a genealogy library and a high school just as easily as they can a ghetto, transforming innocent bystanders into unfortunate victims.
Yet danger does not always dress in army fatigues or gang‑style trench coats; more often, it wears a boy scout uniform, speaks in a soft, deceptively kind voice, or orders its victims to keep quiet without uttering a word. It masquerades as an uncle, a piano teacher, or the 11‑year old boy next door. Less frequently, it appears in the form of a stranger or an overly aggressive peer at school.
The danger I refer to is Abuse . . . Child Maltreatment . . . the Endangerment of Children. Talking to children about personal safety issues is incumbent upon all parents.
At the outset I wish to make two points unmistakably clear: 1) our communities are comparatively safe places to live, and most people we meet and interact with are not intent upon harming our children, and therefore 2) child maltreatment should be viewed as the exception, not the rule in the lives of children. The statistical likelihood that our children will experience some traumatic event is unlikely, but since God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust we are wise to prepare our children against the day of peril.
Reminders of child maltreatment are constantly before us: we learn about it on TV from the six o’clock news or on John Walsh’s America’s Most Wanted program, in the newspaper when we read of a child abduction or a pedophile who is sentenced for sexual abuse, at family gatherings when whisperings of “what Uncle Bill did” are circulated, or from our children themselves when they come home with stories of having been pressured, coerced, or threatened. Some of us ourselves may have experienced maltreatment as children, and data suggests that it is not as uncommon as once thought.
A key point to remember is this: in 90% of maltreatment cases the child knows the perpetrator; therefore, educating children about strangers represents but a small part of self‑ protection. A child is much more likely to be sexually abused by a neighbor boy or a relative, for instance, than to be abducted by a stranger or become the victim of a shooting at school.
A primary concern shared by many parents wishing to teach their children about personal safety is: How do I approach a safety issue and teach my child self‑protection without unduly scaring him? How do I insulate my child against vulnerability without setting him on edge?
Clearly, we don’t want to alarm our children, make them hypervigilant or untrusting, nor give them the impression that their world is an unsafe place. On the contrary, we all want our kids to be carefree, spontaneous, and exuberant . . . qualities bred by a safe environment.
But they simply must be alerted to the reality that there are those people who would hurt them, given the right opportunity. There is value in critical thinking, in acknowledging a less than perfect world, in being appropriately skeptical. Knowledge is indeed power, the kind of power that can prevent unforeseen trauma.
I would also assert that children are more resilient than the above questions give them credit for. Approached in the right way (see below), most children will be empowered rather than unduly burdened by the information and skills they’re given. Those children most likely to be troubled by a discussion of safety are those who already have a predisposition for worrying. Such children will undoubtedly require extra doses of reassurance, but I believe the training to be well worth the trade off.
Children need an understanding of and skills related to four basic areas of self‑protection:
1. Children must clearly be able to distinguish appropriate from inappropriate behavior in others. They must feel empowered with the conviction that they have the right to protect their own physical and emotional being. For instance, parents should openly address the issue of sexual abuse with their children, telling them that no one has the right to touch their private parts (e.g., Athe parts covered by your swimming suit).
2. Children must understand how to avoid situations where harm could come to them more easily. That is, they must understand the value of preventative measures in reducing the chance that they could be taken advantage of. Rules about approaching and interacting with strangers are a good example of preventative education. Equally critical, role-playing should be used to teach a child what to do when someone — yes, even someone they know — does something that makes them feel sad, scared, or uncomfortable.
3. Children must possess the assertiveness skills to be able to reject or fight off unwanted advances when they do occur. They must be prepared to take action to protect themselves, such as running away, screaming, or fighting. Again, simulating threatening or potentially abusive situations can be especially helpful in allowing the child to practice his responses to scary situations.
4. Children must have confidence in adults who will believe and support them when an abusive or otherwise personally threatening incident is reported. It is sobering indeed to realize that, even with a perfect repertoire of self‑protection skills, a child cannot always avoid being molested, abducted, or otherwise harmed. The best we as parents can do is help our children reduce the likelihood of such incidents occurring. As parents we must convince our children, through both word and action, that we are a sure source of safety and protection to them.
I suggest that parents view educating their children about personal safety as a process rather than an event; that is, once taught the topic should be periodically revisited. Since Naivete is the mother of Vulnerability, the education of the many provides the best insulation against the cold‑hearted, selfish acts of the few.
Steven M. Gentry, PhD., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of
Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah