Stranger Danger Isn’t an Effective Way to Talk to Kids About Predators—Here’s Why

A recent child abduction case made one mom rethink her approach on the topic.

<p>Getty Images / Mayur Kakade</p>

Getty Images / Mayur Kakade

Fact checked by Karen Cilli

We had just gotten home from my son’s baseball tournament when I saw the news story about Charlotte Sena, a 9-year-old girl who went missing from a campground in upstate New York while riding her bike. Authorities had reason to believe that she was abducted by a stranger, which made my stomach drop.

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I have a 9-year-old daughter, and I often let her run around with her friends unsupervised when we’re at various ball fields. After reading about Charlotte, I texted one of the moms on our team. “This story makes me never want to let our girls out of our sight,” I wrote, as my mind replayed every time that I let my daughter walk to the bathroom or the snack shack with a friend while my eyes were on the game.

I followed this story voraciously. A few days later, a text from my baseball mom friend popped up on my phone in the middle of the workday: “She was found alive!” Miraculously, police were able to locate Charlotte just a few miles from her family’s home after the man who kidnapped her put a ransom note in their mailbox—which had his fingerprint on it.

This story had a happy ending, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I hadn’t prepared my children well enough for how to handle interactions with strangers. When I was a kid, pictures of missing children were often plastered on the side of milk cartons, staring back at me as I ate my cereal every morning. I was aware of stranger danger, but I wondered if my own kids would know what to do if someone they didn’t know approached them.

As it turns out, the first step to helping kids stay safe is to dispel the whole stranger danger concept, says Callahan Walsh, a Child Advocate for the National Center For Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), a non-profit that was formed by the United States Congress in 1984 and was inspired in part by the 1981 abduction and murder of Walsh’s 6-year-old brother, Adam. “If you ask a child what a stranger looks like, they’ll say ‘someone who is mean and ugly,’ and that’s not always the case,” says Walsh. “A predator is trying to lure the child so they’re often being kind to them.”

Not only are stranger abductions rare—accounting for 1% of missing children cases according to the NCMEC—but it’s likely that a stranger will be the one who comes to a child’s rescue. “We need to teach kids about trusted adults: a neighbor, a teacher, a security guard, a store clerk with a name badge,” he says. “These are the people they can reach out to if they’re in trouble. Over 80% of the time when a kid gets away from an abductor, it’s because they drew as much attention to the scenario as possible. That can be the difference between life and death.”

When I mentioned to my friend Susan that I was writing this article, she recounted how she always told her kids to scream their heads off if a stranger ever approached them. It was funny when they were little, but would probably elicit teenage eye rolls today. Which is why it’s important to start these conversations when your kids are young, says Walsh. “The conversation will mature as they get older and it’s much easier to do that if the message is something they’ve heard regularly.” (Like when you need to tell your teenage daughter what to be aware of when walking alone in a dark parking lot.)

It's also key to give kids skills and information rather than worst case scenarios, says Jennifer Katzenstein, PhD, Director of Psychology, Neuropsychology and Social Work and Co-Director of the Center For Behavioral Health at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fl. “As parents, we have to strike a balance between awareness and fear. Describe situations that can happen, which can vary from a stranger approaching them at a park or on a bike ride, to social media safety and potential strangers reaching out via social media platforms and trying to meet up or offering expensive gifts,” says Katzenberg. “And encourage them to trust their instincts.” 

The NCMEC has a program called Kidz Smart, which empowers kids in grades K-5 to practice safer behaviors. For example, if a person you don’t know offers you candy or approaches you in a car and asks for directions, tell them you need to check with an adult first or take a friend with you, and don’t be afraid to say no—even to an adult. “Children are taught to respect their elders, but if they feel sad, scared, confused, or uncomfortable, they have a right to say no,” says Walsh.

Related: Watch This Psychologist Break Down How To Build Your Child's Sense of Internal Safety

Parents today also have the benefit of technology to track their children, something that didn’t exist when many of those kids on the milk cartons were abducted. I hesitated on whether to get my daughter an Apple watch, but every time I can see her location on my phone while I’m at work, I’m reminded that this was money well spent.

But gadgets and gizmos aside, keeping kids safe can be as old school as coming up with a safety code word that only your family members know, says Walsh. As we were talking, I remembered that my family did this when I was a kid. The password was “pool” and if a stranger ever approached and told me that I needed to go with them, I knew to ask them for the password first. “It’s a way to bond with your kids and make them feel protected,” says Walsh. I’m already thinking about what our password will be.

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