Thursday 23 May 2019

Dear David Coleman: When is the right time to talk to my daughter about her safety and inappropriate behaviour by others?

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David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. My seven-year-old daughter is a very happy little girl but at times gets anxious. As she is getting a bit older there are more occasions when we cannot be with her, eg parties, swimming with school and so on. Is this an appropriate age to start discussing other dangers and her personal safety, eg inappropriate behaviour towards her by others? We already talk about things like road safety.

I don't want to increase her anxiety or maybe make her more aware than she needs to be. What should we do?

David replies: Parents are naturally inclined to be alert to dangers for their children. Indeed we can't expect children, at age seven, to be alert to dangers, it is still very much our job to do so. If you think about it, there will be no situations where your child is left without adult supervision.

Even if you are not providing direct supervision, there will be some other adult who is in charge of her and any other children. So, if you accept that logic, then the only people who really need to be aware of dangers, are you and those adults.

Your job, currently, is to identify potential danger points and to coach her in how to act in those situations. So, for example, a possible danger is getting separated in a supermarket. You can teach her how, in such a situation, to always approach someone with a name badge, or in a uniform, if she gets separated from you, because these are "safe" and helpful people who can help her to find you and reunite you.

With seven-year-olds, I think it is much more useful to think about safeguarding strategies for them, and with them, than to focus on situations that might be dangerous. You have already begun this process with the topic of road safety. I am sure your conversations with her have been focused on how to safely cross a road, rather than how dangerous moving cars are.

You will have discussed the concept of stopping to cross the road at pedestrian crossings, rather than simply crossing at any point. You will have talked about her and her siblings holding your hand, looking from side to side and so on.

We know, from research, that children are more often in danger of harm from people that know them, than from strangers. So, given there won't be an opportunity for strangers to approach her without your knowledge and your ability to intervene, I think there should be little need to talk to her, yet, about "stranger danger".

As she becomes more independent of you, either in the real world, or in an online world, there will certainly come a time when conversations, about the danger that other people may pose to her, will be necessary.

For now, I think it is enough to talk about what she can do if anyone else ever upsets her, or makes her feel bad, or uncomfortable. Because she is only seven, you will have to give her concrete examples of the kinds of situations you mean. The more relevant those examples are for her, the better.

So, rather than just referring to "inappropriate behaviour towards her", which is an abstract concept, you might talk about what to do if any children in her class were to say something mean, upsetting or hurtful to her.

Similarly, you might want to alert her to how to respond if someone hits her, kicks her, or pushes her. You can extend these examples to include adults also.

Remember, also, that the Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) curriculum in primary schools also covers key areas like bullying, sex and sexuality, personal safety and the "stay safe" message. So, you can expect that these issues will grow in her awareness, in the context of her general education at developmentally appropriate times.

Indeed, you can look up the curriculum yourself to get an idea of what kinds of issues are discussed at what ages.

This will be a support to you because it might open the door for parallel conversations at home while the issues are being discussed in school.

As with discussing any other behaviour that may leave her feeling uncomfortable, or upset, that goal is to leave her with a strategy for what to do. Naturally, your most likely suggestion to her, at her age, is to come and tell you, or the teacher, or another mum, about what has happened.

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