Talking to children about ‘stranger danger’ – without instilling fear

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Also published on iVillage.
In light of heartbreaking and very public news of recent murders and kidnappings (such as Jill Meagher and more recently, the escape of the 3 kidnapped girls in the US), it is more than likely that many children will be exposed to communal outpourings of shock, grief and fear. This may occur through snippets of adult conversation, passing by a news agency, listening to the car radio or via television news.

Fear reactions to media are quite common for young children in particular, even from descriptions alone. A survey of 5-12 year olds indicated that 37% of the children surveyed, were scared by something they saw on the news, and they were most often affected by stories of stranger violence. Emotional stress results, in part, when a child cannot give meaning to dangerous experiences.

How can I recognise whether my child is adversely affected?

Common reactions by young children

  • sleeping problems
  • changes in toileting and eating habits
  • regressive or ‘babyish’ behaviour
  • behavioural changes such as becoming more withdrawn, clingy, tearful or angry
  • separation anxiety
  • changes in relationships with peers and siblings, such as becoming more competitive or aggressive
  • reliving traumatic events through play and drawings

Common reactions by older children

  • sleeping problems, including nightmares
  • physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches
  • not wanting to go to school or usual activities
  • behavioural changes – becoming withdrawn or having problems at school
  • regressive or ‘babyish’ behaviour
  • drop in performance at school
  • changes in behaviour with teachers, carers, siblings and parents

(Adapted from

In light of this tragedy I have been asked by a number of parents, how they might talk about ‘stranger danger’, without scaring their children at the same time.

We know as parents, the manner in which we deal with our own fears and confidence in such situations, communicates far more powerfully than the words we say.

It has been shown to be highly effective when parents actively help their children understand what they are seeing and hearing. This is favourable over leaving children to process, or self-interpret messages they have heard.

Also expect the unexpected, as not every child will experience these events in the same way. Children’s knowledge will be determined by their age and their previous exposure to such events,

Younger children will depend largely on their parents to interpret events, while older children and teenagers will get information from a variety of sources, which may not be as reliable.

These ideas may assist you:

  1. Consider turning off – minimise young children’s exposure to news programs
  2. Decide what news is appropriate for children to 
see or hear – Watching television reports may overwhelm younger children.
  3. Avoid discussing media reports with other adults, whilst children are near.
  4. Listen to your children carefully. Before responding, get a clear picture of what it is that they understand and what is leading to their questions.
  5. First find out what he or she understands about what has happened.
  6. Begin a dialog to help your child gain a basic understanding, appropriate for their age.
  7. Give children reassurance and psychological first-aid. Make sure they know they are being protected.
  8. If anxiety becomes prolonged however, seek psychological support and counseling.

Keeping the above in mind, it is imperative that we continue to encourage our children to develop socially, without fear. So how do we foster opportunities for saying ‘hi’ to a new child at the park, or thanking the checkout attendant, while still maintaining safety?One option is to make it clear to our young children that it’s great to answer the door, chat to the store assistant or to wave at another person in line at the fair — but only with you hard at their heels.

“Your presence will communicate that you are confident in her social skills, but that you are also there to support her no matter who is at the door.” Dr. Michael Rich

Children may be vulnerable and in need of our protection however, we need to find ways in which we can nurture both IQ and EQ, without instilling fear and stifling their natural curiosity about life.

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