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Talking to Kids about Strangers

We’re always preaching to our children not to trust strangers. Is the advice still relevant today? What is the best approach to ensure that they follow our advice?

This article reveals that younger children lack the judgment and skepticism to recognize deceptive and predatory behavior. Predators know how to take advantage of their naivety and desire to be accepted.

Here is how to get more peace of mind…

Stranger Danger

Since law enforcement and the media introduced the concept of “stranger danger” in the mid-1980s, the environment has changed, and society has become much more diverse. For instance, the Internet and smartphone applications can bring threats to children into your home. Because of these changes, new vigilance is required to keep your children safe.

We must emphasize, however, that child abduction and assault by strangers are still relatively rare compared to abuse and neglect by adults known to children. Therefore, a balance is needed between vigilance and trust, safety and isolation, and control and empowerment. This means that parents must use their discretion and common logic when it comes to looking after kids, starting with common advice and rules.

Talking about Strangers: Common Advice and Rules

Here are a few rules and safety tips that your child needs to know depending on the place and activity of the child.

General

  • Remember to be SMART – “Safety Means Always Recognizing Trouble” – be aware of what is going on around you.
  • When you feel that something is not right, do not hesitate or feel shy to ask for help.
  • If a person whom you don’t know offers you a lift or a gift, always say “no.”
  • If someone makes you feel unsafe, get someone’s attention by saying loudly “Help,” or “I don’t know you.”
  • Always know a safe zone along your usual routes and places – keep a list or map of safe zones and routes. Examples are schools, police stations, shops, or a friend’s house.
  • Choose a safe word with your parents. If they send anyone to you, the person should know the safe word.
  • Always stay with your parents, family, or parents – never walk off alone.
  • If your child has a mobile phone, upload a tracking app that you can use when needed. Add important numbers to their contacts list but also have them memorize your number and an emergency number such as the police.

When on the Road

  • When walking on the sidewalk, be aware of people and cars near you.
  • Do your best to walk or wait for a lift or the bus where there are people around.
  • When a car or person slows down and follows you, walk quickly to a safe spot such as a shop or group of people.
  • When a person stops you to ask something, take three steps back. If you feel uncomfortable, walk away to a safe spot.
  • Never approach strangers sitting in a car.
  • Do not get into a car with a stranger.

When playing outside

  • Always play where your parents can see you.
  • Do not go near or talk to a stranger who comes into your yard.
  • If you feel unsafe, go inside and tell your parents.

When inside the home

  • When someone knocks or rings the doorbell, do not open the door – ask who it is and call your parents it they are at home.
  • Only when you know and trust the person, open the door.
  • When the telephone rings, answer but do not give any personal information like your name and address. Don’t tell if you alone at home, just offer to take a message.
  • If someone you don’t know calls, let your parents talk to him if they are at home.
  • Do not take the person’s word that they are from the police, utilities company, a repairman, or was sent by your parents (unless they know your safe word).

When on the Internet

  • Do not communicate with strangers on social media or messaging apps.
  • Do not give personal information like your name and address to strangers.
  • Do not tell any stranger when you are alone at home.
  • Do not trust what a stranger tells you. People sometimes lie about their age, photo, and who they are.
  • Never agree to meet a stranger, even if you believe they are honest.

When in a Mall or Building

  • Know your safe zones.
  • Do not go into public bathrooms by yourself.
  • Shout for help if you feel threatened.
  • Do not get into a lift by yourself.
  • Stay with friends, family, or your parents.

These tips and rules are meant to keep your child as safe as possible without being too restrictive.

A Talking To Strangers Guideline by Age Group

In addition to the tips and rules above, your child needs to know that some strangers do “bad” things that can hurt a child. It does not matter how they look like, how old they are, or what clothes or uniform they wear. They should not trust any stranger.

Before you can trust your children, you need to make sure they’re educated to make the right choices — that they understand the dangers of wandering off on their own, or accepting gifts from strangers, no matter how “nice” those strangers might appear to be.

A great tool for educating children about stranger danger, is through storytelling.

Multiple studies have shown that as humans, we are wired to respond to stories. We are drawn into them and associate very strongly with the lessons they deliver.

For instance, take the classic story of Little Red Riding Hood.

In Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf disguises itself as Red’s grandmother, a kind, harmless and trusted person.

This is a very important lesson for children. It shows them that danger can be treacherous and deceptive.

Another great story is Snow White. It teaches children how dangerous it can be to accept gifts from strangers, no matter how tasty or shiny they may be.

Tell your kids these stories often. Describe the scenes as vividly as you can, so that they leave a lasting impression in your children’s minds. Also, get them to tell the story back to you and tell you what they’ve learned from it.

I promise these stories will be much more effective in teaching your children how to look after themselves, than any lecture ever will.

And if you have any doubts, here’s a little experiment you can try for yourself.

Tell your child you’re about to tell them a story. Notice their reaction and focus as you recount the tale.

Once you’re done telling them the story, leave them alone for a few minutes, then come back and start giving them the regular lecture about stranger danger. You’ll notice how quickly they lose focus and how their attention starts to wander almost immediately.

Of course, storytelling and rules are most effective if a child can relate to it. Making a child aware of the danger that a stranger can pose to them and offering advice must be selected based on their age and ability to understand and relate to it.

Stranger Danger for Preschoolers

For pre-school children, a story and tips must be visual, simple, and relate directly to their experiences. You should not be abstract or hypothetical. By the pre-school development phase, most children have formed trust for his or her caregivers and a sound instinct of danger and mistrust of others. They have also developed a sense of personal control and like to test their independence that bolster their willingness to take initiative.

Cognitively, preschoolers are in the preoperational stage of cognitive development, which means that they are starting to think symbolically through pictures and words. They are still egocentric and have difficulty seeing things from someone else’s perspective. They tend to think about things in concrete terms.

These typical tendencies must guide the parent to make sure that the preschooler understand that people are different and not everyone can be trusted. While people are not born “bad,” sometimes, when they are hurt as a child, they want to hurt others when they get older. That is why staying safe is even more important for the psychological wellbeing of your child and your household.

After a story like Little Red Riding Hood, quiz you kid about the safety issues. Discuss what the characters did wrong and what they should have done in simple and concrete terms.

Stranger Danger for Schoolers

During the early school years, social interactions increase, and children start to develop a sense of pride and confidence in their skills, abilities, and accomplishments. They start to believe that they can handle difficult situations and tasks expected of them. They do not yet have a well-formed sense of personal identity and is less likely to explore feelings of control and independence, sometimes by taking risks.

Schoolers think more logically about things that have happened to them. Their thoughts are more organized but they are not as able to speculate about things that have happened to others or may happen to them. They can reason, such as taking specific information to form general rules. This ability is helpful when talking about safety. An example is to take a situation where they did not feel safe and discuss what they could or should have done to stay out of trouble. Make the information as practical and relatable as possible.

Using quizzes, activities, and stories the schooler can learn about different way stranger danger can happen to your child. One such a story, The Mystery of the Cyber Friend, illustrates how people can give a fake identity to lure a child to meet them in person. At this age, the trick is to help the child understand the difference between staying away from strangers, selecting the right places and people to ask for help, and being friendly with people when parents, friends, and family is present.

Stranger Danger for Teenagers

Teenagers develop a sense of personal identity, which is the beliefs, ideals, and values that guide their behavior. They understand more about society’s rules and expectations and explore their independence and control within these boundaries, which they can test at times as well. Therefore, they may engage in riskier behavior as well, which the parent must discourage using sensible and logical information.

At this stage, the young adult becomes more adept in abstract thinking and reasoning. Therefore, rules must be explained with sufficient examples and background information. The teenager can reason about hypothetical situations and think in terms of social, moral, and ethical issues.

The parent can discuss real events with their teenage child and hypothesize about its implications, choices, and different outcomes. Maintaining an appropriate balance between their autonomy and vigilance is more important than before. Therefore, trust and openness are crucial to guide the young person instead of being too prescriptive.

Why Education Isn’t Enough

What is clear from the different stages of child development is that education alone isn’t enough to compel a child to follow the rules.

The biggest problem is that children —particularly younger ones— have no guile and absolutely no sense of self-preservation, whereas many older ones like to challenge the boundaries of authority.

I’m sure you’ve told your kids a million times not to trust strangers. I know I’ve told my 7-year-old son that same thing many times.

But is it enough?

Some time ago, I stumbled upon the social experiment video below. I’d like you to watch it now. It’s less than 4 minutes long, but I promise it will be an eye-opener.

And if you’re anything like me, you’ll be pretty shocked by the end of it.

All of those parents educated their children not to trust strangers; not to go anywhere without telling them first. And yet, all of the children happily walked off with a total “stranger.”

So, what happened in that video? How did the “stranger” convince the children to walk away with him and completely ignore their parents’ advice?

The young man looked innocuous and did not look out of place in the play park, especially with his dog, which he used as a hook to engage the child. He quickly gained her trust and interested her to go with him and look at the other puppies. Despite their parents’ admonitions not to talk to strangers, all of the kids in the experiment went with him.

In another social experiment highlighting the dangers of social media, three young teenage girls went out of their homes, some after dark, to meet with a stranger who met them online only days before, posing as a 15-year-old boy. The parents assured the producer that they educate their children on a daily basis and that their kids won’t go through with the meetings. Yet, in all cases, they left their home alone to meet with a stranger.

Despite the gravest admonitions, discussion of news events of real kidnappings, and daily reminders to stay away from strangers, all of these girls ignored the warnings anyway.

How Bad Strangers Manipulate Children

The videos above already give us a clue how predators operate when they manipulate children to do what they want. Predators can be patient and groom children over time, progressively making them trust him, often distancing them from their parents, swearing them to secrecy, and exploiting their need to be accepted. Grooming prepares the child to a point where they obey the perpetrator and can happen in person or online. The child then willingly goes along with the wishes of the predator.

It is different from the approach in the video that constitutes a simple lure with something seemingly innocent and attractive to the child, or a blitz attack where the perpetrator quickly grabs the child and disappears when the parent’s attention is distracted.

The first two strategies most often involve predators that are socially competent and can appear genuine and trustworthy to a child, which they use fully to their advantage.

1. They are gentle, kind and relatable

Contrary to what we see in movies, kidnappers and criminals don’t always look sneaky, suspicious or dangerous. They will go to great lengths to appear as similar as possible to nice and respectable people. Their clothes are just like anyone else’s. Their tone of voice is soft, and their mannerisms are gentle.

To the child’s eye, they are exactly what a friendly and trustworthy adult would look like.

You’ll notice that in the video above, the “kidnapper” perfectly blends into the crowd with his clothes and behavior. The puppy implies that this man is caring and gentle. After all, people who love animals are nice people… right?

2. They know a lot about children and how to quickly earn their trust

In the video above, the “kidnapper” uses a cute puppy to catch the children’s attention and make them forget the advice that they should never talk to strangers. He approaches the children very cautiously so as not to alarm them. After they’ve patted the dog, which is a simple and effective way to commit their interaction, he engages them in conversation by asking them to guess the puppy’s name.

Next, he makes a statement that they agree with, “You like puppies, right?”

This is a technique right out of the field of salesmanship and persuasion. The more opinions we share with someone, the more we tend to trust their judgement about things we don’t know. We all tend to be susceptible to this phenomenon (to a greater or lesser degree); children even more so. After the “kidnapper” has managed to get the children to say their first “yes,” it becomes easier for him to get them to answer “yes” a second time when asking them to join him and go visit the puppies.

3. They exploit our weaknesses as parents

Kidnappers and criminals don’t just know a lot about children. They also know a lot about parents.

They know how we think. They can understand when we’re relaxed with our guard down, or when we’re tense and on the alert.

These predators take advantage of our weaknesses by targeting our children in places where we think they’re safest — such as in a playground with lots of attentive and responsible parents around, just like in the video above.

They also exploit Optimism Bias — our belief that “it would never happen to me.” And it’s not because we’re careless or pretentious. It’s simply human nature and none of us are immune to it.

By being watchful and patient and carefully applying their social skills, predators are effective in selecting the best moment to engage with the child. Their plan is well thought through and swift – it often only takes seconds to carry out. As soon as the child is out of eyesight and control of the parent, the kidnapper has all the advantage.

How to Protect Your Children from Kidnappers and Predators

So, apart from telling our children to stay away from strangers, what more can we do?

As I wrote earlier, children possess neither common sense nor an instinct for self-preservation. Education is crucial, but we can’t depend on it exclusively.

I would like you to watch the first video again starting from 2:58 (direct link here) and the second video starting from 6:58 (direct link here). Observe how the child reacts while the parent explains that he or she should not have gone with the stranger. It takes the child exactly 10 seconds to completely phase out of the conversation. From that point onward, you’ll notice that the child isn’t listening or taking in a single word his parent is telling him.

Education can only take us so far. For the rest, we need proper precautions.

Here are a few things you can do to protect your children from kidnappers and predators.

1. Dress them up in highly visible and easily recognizable clothes

I always dress my son as conspicuously as possible — bright t-shirts, bright pants, colored caps. The more unusual the better.

In my case, it also helps that my son is always the loudest and shrillest voice in the playground. So never chastise your children for being loud when they play.

Remember, predators go for easy prey. They will pick a child who is harder to spot; one who is wearing clothes that look just like everybody else’s. They’ll target quieter children, because they’re less likely to make a scene if approached.

The longer it takes for a child’s absence to be noticed, the easier it gets for a kidnapper to take away that child, never to be seen again.

2. Team up

Team up with other parents to keep a watchful eye on your children.

When I take my son to the playground, the first thing I do is notice whom he’s playing with. Then I’ll locate the other child’s parents and strike up a friendly conversation with them.

Now, there’s more than just one pair of eyes keeping watch over the children. And since the children are playing together, they’re most likely in the same spot, therefore easier to keep track of.

3. Be observant and keep a watchful eye

As the second video showed, children are more likely to engage with strangers online, believing the false personas that they portray. A study conducted at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, reported that around 72 percent of children eight-years-old and younger use a mobile device, while 99 percent of grade four to eleven have access to Internet devices outside of school.

The study also found that, despite regular warnings about safety, only one-third of children viewed talking to strangers online as a potential threat. The children don’t seem to make the connection between online contact and in-person danger.

That is why many of the parents surveyed in the study used a variety of safeguards in addition to education to minimize the risks as indicated in the table below.

ThreatCode DescriptionBehavior codeBehavior Description
Inappropriate contentParental control is set for YouTube, Parents monitor what apps children have on their devices daily.Parental control, MonitorParental control is set for YouTube. Mom monitors apps. Mom deletes games with violent or frightening scenes.
Device addictionKids go on the devices too often; parents try to limit the hours when they can.Limit screen timeParents try to limit how many hours kids spend on their device.
Inappropriate appsKids accounts are linked through mom’s email.Account linking, MonitoringMom can see what the kids are downloading. It pops up in her email.
Social mediaThere’s a lot of inappropriate content on social media.Restrict access until older, Account access, MonitoringMom thinks kids are too young; Facebook is unnecessary for their age. If they get Facebook, mom would closely monitor the account and have her password.
Stranger-DangerOver sharing

Kids are innocent and naïve

Mom worries about kids over sharing information and talking to strangers whose true identity is unknown.Restrict access until older. Monitoring, Educate about the threatMom restricts access to social media, and monitors what they download. She talks to them about stranger-danger.

As is evident from the table above, parents can take a lot of useful precautions to ensure that their children use online devices in a safer way. In addition, a parent must be vigilant and watchful for any changes in their child’s behavior. Any perceptions or actions that are unexpected and out of the ordinary can be an indication of potentially harmful outside influence.

4. Stop playing at a disadvantage

Nowadays, kidnappers aren’t just smart — they’re also very well-equipped. They use cameras, surveillance tools, the internet, and any tool available to their advantage, because they know that one tiny mistake can be the end of them.

When competing against such a well-equipped and devious threat, your eyes and ears will never be enough. You need to level the playing field and get technology on your side.

So, by being watchful when your children are playing or moving about outside the home, to vigilance and protective measures when they engage online, parents can do a lot above and beyond education about the dangers that can lurk around the corner.

Another safety measure that I have just briefly touched on before is the distinction between “good” strangers and “bad” strangers, which can be quite contentious and subjective, but it is more important to understand the situation that applies.

The “Good” Strangers

When one thinks about “good” strangers, some professions almost immediately comes to mind in addition to friends and family. Policemen, nurses, doctors, teachers, and churchmen are typical examples. Even repairmen and shopkeepers can be seen as helpful and, therefore, benign.

These assumptions may be true in most cases. But, remember that predators often use false appearances to make their victims feel comfortable. Therefore, they may use a uniform to portray themselves to the child as someone who can be trusted.

The environment or situation in which strangers find themselves tells us if they fit in and if they are who they appear to be. For instance, a man with a police uniform approaching a child at a playground is perhaps not a real policeman unless he has good reason to engage with the child. On the other hand, a man wearing a police uniform in a police station or performing duty at a traffic stop is likely not a fake.

Your child should understand the context, namely, where to expect policemen, priests, nurses, and so forth. Anyone stopping, approaching, or making them feel uncomfortable, should not be trusted, whether they wear a uniform or not.

This is where the concept of safe zones mentioned before is very important. The “good” person is associated with the safe zone, such as a school, shop, hospital, church, or police station. In these environments, children can feel safer to approach these identifiable strangers for help if needed.

Answers to Common Questions About Strangers

Here are a few frequently asked questions about strangers and how to act when accosted or feeling threatened.

What is a stranger?

The simple answer is that a stranger is anyone that you don’t know. Whether you come across him or her in person or online does not make a difference. They can look friendly and harmless but be deceiving children with bad intentions. Unless you need help and go to a safe zone, never trust a stranger.

How can you avoid stranger danger?

o not accept anything like gifts, lifts, or treats from a stranger. Run away or get your parents if you feel uncomfortable. Do not accept the friendship of a stranger online. Do not tell a stranger any of your personal information like your name and address. Always let your parents know where you are going.

How can a stranger hurt you online?

Strangers who reach out to a child online are often not who they portray to be. For instance, they use a fake photo, lie about their age and background, about knowing your friends or family, and about wanting to be your friend. In the meantime, they laugh at you when you believe their lies. They make you feel comfortable enough so that you agree to meet them alone without your friends or parents to protect you.

If you get lost, what should you do?

If you get lost or separated from your parents or friends, go to the nearest safe zone as quickly as you can. Ask a person there to phone your parents or the police, who is trained to know what to do to help you.

If someone grabs you, what should you do?

Yell to attract attention. Try to wrestle free and run away if you can. Let people know loudly that you don’t know this person who grabbed you.

If someone makes you feel uncomfortable, what should you do?

Move away as quickly as possible. Run if you have to. Go to a safe place. Tell your parents.

This brings us to the end of our exhaustive guide on how to talk to your kids about strangers, how to act in different situations and environments, and what else you can do to maximize their safety. You can’t always control everything that happens, but you can do a lot in practical terms to prevent your child from becoming an easy target. The simple ideas and interventions are sometimes overlooked that are the easiest to understand and follow, which is what we have focused on in this guide. Thereby keeping things you can do real and practical to make your children interacting with strangers as minimal and safe as possible.

From the blog of Find My Kids