• Lizzie Charbonneau

The Stranger Danger Myth

We're all familiar with “stranger danger”–the idea that strangers are responsible for a large proportion, or even a majority, of child abductions and assaults.


Likely, our parents drilled "stranger danger" into us, or we've seen true-crime terror stories of a child being taken while walking home from school.


But


“Stranger danger” is a myth.

The hard truth is our children are much more likely to be harmed by someone we know and trust.


a "stranger" watching children on a plpayground


The truth about "stranger danger"


Over 90% of CSA is committed by someone the child knows – less than 10% by strangers. And less than 1% of child abductions are “stereotypical kidnappings”–when children are abducted off the streets by a stranger. The vast majority of missing children are runaways, thrown-aways, or parental abductions, often as part of a custody dispute.


That a friend or family member may pose the greatest danger to our children is an uncomfortable truth. This discomfort is at the heart of why “stranger danger” has persisted as long as it has.



A group of happy looking adults and children


If there's some risk from strangers, isn’t teaching “stranger danger” still a good idea?


No.

And here are a few reasons why.

Stranger danger:

Gives us a false sense of security when our child is with people we know, leading us to miss warning signs.

Generates fear in children that people everywhere are out to get them.

Makes kids afraid to ask for help from strangers when they need it.

Leads to stereotyping, often of those who are already marginalized

Is used to justify crime bills that are expensive and ineffective.


a mother and child looking scared of an old man


But if we don’t teach stranger danger, what should we teach?


Experts now tell parents to teach kids about unsafe behaviors and safety best practices.


Talk to your kid about how a grownup they don’t know should and should not act.

A grownup might smile and chat briefly, but that should be all.

They should not:

  • Give a child gifts, especially if the child’s adult isn’t around.

  • Ask a child for help. Grownups do not need help from children; they can ask another grownup.

  • Ask a child to go somewhere with them, even if they say things like, “mommy’s had an accident” or “I lost my dog.”


a child taking candy from a car

If a stranger does any of these, tell your child to that they should leave and let another adult know. Children must understand that they can say “no” to adults and do not need to do what an adult asks to be polite.


Also talk to your kid about “tricky” people.

A person becomes “tricky” if they ask your kid to break a body safety rule or keep a secret. If someone asks your kid to do something that makes them feel icky inside, let them know that person might be a “tricky” person, and they should tell a trusted adult as soon as possible. Importantly, A “tricky” person might be someone your kid knows, likes, and trusts.


And, of course, you should teach your kid about basic safety best practices.


two children walking together

Your kid should:

  • Know their body safety rules.

  • Always tell a trusted adult where they are going, even if they’re with someone else.

  • Use the buddy system–take a friend or trusted adult to avoid being alone in a public or unknown space.

  • Say “no” and yell if they feel scared or threatened.*

  • Know their adult’s names and phone numbers.

  • Know what to do if they get lost:

  • Stay in one place.

  • Ask a grownup for help–look for a mom with kids, a police officer, or someone with a name tag.

  • If they are lost and alone, they should make noise so someone can find them.

  • Ask the grownup helping them to call their adult.

  • Tell a trusted adult if they’re uncomfortable or get that icky feeling in their stomach.


One way to work on these safety best practices with your kid is to practice “what if” scenarios when you are out in public. Ask your kid things like, “What if you get lost? Where would you go? Who would you ask for help?”


Finally, you must learn signs of grooming and pay attention to grooming red flags, even if they come from someone you know and trust.



Closing thoughts


As a parent, when I first learned that the people most likely to harm my child were people I knew and trusted, I wondered if I could trust anyone. I even became anxious about letting my parents and parents-in-law babysit or do diaper changes.


However, I soon realized that I couldn't parent effectively if I didn't trust others.


While the numbers tell that if someone hurts our child, they are most likely to be someone we know and trust, the numbers also tell us that the vast majority of people we know and trust deserve that trust!


Instead of deciding I could trust no one, I started sharing our family's body safety rules, enforcing our family's boundaries, and watching for red flag behaviors, regardless of who they come from.


References


*

This is very similar to "no, go, tell," which many CSA prevention advocates are now saying not to teach your kid, or to teach them with nuances. Because CSA is often perpetrated by someone the child knows, trusts, and has likely spent time grooming the child, "no, go, tell" is not effective. Additionally, it puts the onus of preventing or stopping the abuse on the child.

However, we also want to ensure that if our child does feel uncomfortable and feels like they can exit a situation, that they are empowered to do so.




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