How do I keep my son safe without frightening him?
Published 22/10/2012 | 17:00
My son has just started primary school. We are new to the general area so I don't know many people there.
Crèche staff collect him a few days in the week to go for afterschool care while I'm at work. I've had a few conversations with him about personal safety, such as not getting into strangers' cars. I'd welcome your advice, however, as I feel it's a fine line between frightening him and giving him the necessary information to keep him safe, given that I'm not with him all of the time.
What skills does he need without terrifying him?
Of course hearing about April Jones' abduction has made this concern all the more acute. When we hear about children going missing, or being abducted, it sends out so many warning signals that we can easily get overwhelmed.
A child going missing is every parent's worst nightmare.
The thoughts of the terror and hurt that our child might experience brings out every protective facet we have.
The huge national and international coverage that such cases of child abduction get in all media tends to skew our risk judgements, such that we overestimate the risks that children (and we) face from such horrendous crimes.
In fact, the numbers of children that are abducted is comparatively small, and people that they know usually take them (such as one spouse taking a child after separation).
So it is important to keep a sense of perspective about the dangers that our children actually face.
The tendency to overprotect our children is always there, leaving them without any self-protective skills because they have never had an opportunity to develop them.
That said, it is still pragmatic to give our children some advice and guidance about their personal safety when we are not around.
Your son is still young, in junior infants, and so he won't have an eye to the possible dangers that other people may present to him. You are wise to talk to him practically about sticking with people that he knows.
The most important thing your child needs to know is what each day's plan will be.
This means that when something unusual happens that is not part of the expected routine, he will be alert and more likely to react safely.
In your situation, that would mean charting up each day and who will be picking your son up so he knows to expect you or the crèche driver.
If it is the crèche, what kind of vehicle will he expect? Does it have a crèche logo on it or what make and model is it? If you like, you can set up a code word that only you, your son and the crèche driver have.
If your son is not greeted with the code word then he can know not to get into the vehicle.
Be clear about the boundaries you set for your child.
At your son's age you don't necessarily need to frighten him with why he needs to stick within the boundaries.
For now he just needs to know that there are places he can go and places he can't go when you are not there.
As he gets older you can explain more of the rationale for why these rules keep him safe and what dangers he is being kept safe from.
Children do have good instincts and often will get a "gut feeling" about a situation. We may all have noticed that "sense" that at times things just aren't right. We do get a danger warning at times.
Let children be confident about listening to that naturally protective instinct they have.
Because we can't be with them all the time they do have to use their own judgement sometimes and we need to encourage them to do so.
When children get older it will be important for them to keep us updated about their plans and their activities.
Mobile phones for older children, while they may have drawbacks, come into their own as a tool to keep them safer and more contactable.
Allow and encourage your child to be assertive. There may come a time when they need to feel okay about shouting "NO!" and running away.
For now, though, with your son, I think it is enough to give him some basic rules.
He doesn't need additional fear to motivate him to stick to the rules.
As a guide I have listed a series of rules that you might want to give your son. You can give him some of them now and some as he gets older.
Don't be afraid to repeat them, role play them and get your child to list the rules back to you.
* Don't talk to any stranger.
* Don't get into a stranger's car or go off with anyone you don't know.
* Don't accept gifts from strangers.
* Always stay with the person looking after you.
* Never go off without telling an adult you know where you are going.
* Don't be out alone. Always stick with a friend.
* Know your address and telephone number (give older children an alternative number as well if you aren't contactable).
* Tell your parents if anyone ever approaches you and it seems unusual.
* Know how to get help by calling 999 and remember to stay on the line so that you can be traced to a location.
David Coleman is a clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author. Queries and issues can only be addressed through the column and David regrets he cannot enter into personal correspondence