Monday 22 January 2018

Don't turn every stranger into a danger

Child abduction is back in the headlines following a controversial TV series. Our reporter asks how should you talk to your child about staying safe?

Empowerment parenting: Catherine McDonnell says she doesn't want her son Rossa to be paralysed by fear. Photo: Frank McGrath
Empowerment parenting: Catherine McDonnell says she doesn't want her son Rossa to be paralysed by fear. Photo: Frank McGrath
Sheridan Smith in The Moorside

Kathy Donaghy

It's every parent's worst nightmare - the possibility of strangers harming or abducting your child. While these cases are very rare, when they happen it's the ultimate trauma for those directly affected and a source of fear and anxiety for parents everywhere.

When controversial BBC TV mini-series The Moorside aired earlier this month, the issue of child abduction was back in the headlines, as it portrayed the real-life story of the hoax kidnapping of eight-year-old Sharon Matthews in 2008.

The parents of Madeleine McCann hit out at the show as being in poor taste for referring to their missing daughter in the script and for its bad timing as they prepare to mark a decade without their daughter, who disappeared from their holiday apartment in Portugal in 2007.

The spectre of the unseen stranger who takes a child from the safety of their family is the stuff of horrors, but the reality is this scenario is extremely rare. Many of us grew up hearing "don't talk to strangers" but how realistic is this when most of us engage with strangers on the bus, in the supermarket and on the street on a daily basis?

Is it reasonable to warn children away from basic human interactions for fear a bogeyman is lying in wait? And in an age of helicopter parenting, how do parents broach the subject of staying safe with their children without putting them off interacting with people and making them anxious?

Parenting expert Allen O'Donoghue, who runs, says the first thing for parents to be aware of is the need to get the balance between having the conversation about stranger danger and scaring the living daylights out of your child.

Using scare tactics can actually prevent your child from absorbing the important information you need them to take from these conversations, he warns.

"Fear can be paralysing, so how you approach this discussion is so important. Speaking calmly, in a supportive way, will help your child take on board what you are saying," says O'Donoghue.

He says parents should talk to their child about being vigilant. If they're going out walking to school or sports, parents should try to ensure their children travel with friends or in a group. If your child does come to you with a concern, he says, try not to over-react.

Single mum Catherine McDonnell from Blackrock, Co Dublin, says she doesn't like to tell her 10-year-old son Rossa that he could be vulnerable. "Instead of telling him about the 'bad' people, I tell him about all the good people who are out there and willing to help him if he's worried or frightened," she says.

"So if he's lost in a crowded park, he's to stop, think, and come up with a sensible plan as to what to do. I tell him to think about the last place he saw me and to ask for help from another parent with kids for example."

She adds: "This way he feels like such a big clever boy when he goes to the first-aid crew or anyone who looks like they're organising something. I don't want him to just stand there, rooted to the spot, too terrified to move because I've filled him with horror stories about what can happen to kids if the baddie gets them."

She says her son is naturally outgoing and friendly, and the last thing she wants is for him to lose that sense of himself because of fear.

"I want him to be empowered, not fearful. I tell him always to listen to his gut instinct. If someone says something that's a little bit off or if he's uncomfortable with something they are saying, I tell him to listen to that and get away from that person immediately," she says. "We've developed our society in such a way that we are encouraged to be fearful of everything. Being frightened all the time, in order to feel safe, doesn't make sense to me. A bit of fear keeps us on our toes, but too much only stunts our development. I don't want this for my son."

For mum-of-two Jo Cain from Inishowen, Co Donegal, communication is key to making sure her children Cora (10) and Liam (9) stay safe.

"We have check-in times in our estate. They have to come back every 15 minutes or every half hour," she says. "Just because we live in a rural area doesn't mean we don't have to let them know about dangers."

Jo has also introduced the concept of being aware of strangers in cyberspace with her children and has talked to them about being safe online.

"It's not just the 'stranger' on the street," she says. "It's the way people can use technology to get into their lives that you also have to be conscious of."

She adds that stories on the news have led to questions from her children on the issue. "I find that honesty and openness are best rather than have them worrying. I talk about things with them on their terms - it's the same with any life situation. Every day issues make them aware that life is not all rosy. But if you talk about it in an age-appropriate way, they won't be worrying," she says.

Using age-appropriate language is really important, according to child psychologist Sarah O'Doherty.

"For younger children, the advice needs to be concrete," she says. "Keep the information basic: reinforce that they never get into a car with someone no matter what that person says, even if they say they know your mum and dad. It's too confusing for a young child if you introduce scenarios. You just say you never, ever do that because it's dangerous.

"With older children, you can focus on motivation and start to introduce some other information. You can talk to them about how people can approach them and tell them something plausible."

O'Doherty found herself having to have a conversation along those very lines with her 12-year-old daughter recently after a spate of sexual assaults on young women in the Shankill and Killiney area of Dublin where they live.

"I talked more about the motivations of the person and what they might be thinking," she says.

As locals in the area gathered last weekend for a Take Back the Night march in response to the attacks, O'Doherty found the opportunity to discuss it with her daughter as they walked home.

"I talked to her about thinking on her feet. You want to hand over the skills to your child for them to be able to protect themselves," she explains. "You can't be there all the time."

Irish Independent

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