Wednesday 12 December 2018

Why teaching your kids 'stranger danger' will not keep them safe

Children are far more at risk from someone they know and even the online world rather than strangers, writes Stella O'Malley

LIFE SKILLS: Sometimes children need to be able to spot someone appropriate and ask for help
LIFE SKILLS: Sometimes children need to be able to spot someone appropriate and ask for help
Stella O'Malley

Stella O'Malley

How many strangers did you speak to last week? When the shopkeeper commented on the weather did you keep your head down and shuffle off nervously or did you join in the general chat about the summer? When an American tourist asked for directions did you barrel past them without making eye contact or did you stop and try to help?

Our kids see us every day interacting with strangers - it's one of those things that keeps us smiling as we go about our daily business and this is why, as Aingeala Flannery pointed out in the Sunday Independent last week, asking our kids not to speak to strangers doesn't work - it confuses the kids and it goes against our friendly nature.

Thankfully the latest advice from the experts has moved away from this blanket ban on strangers and it is now deemed more helpful and effective to tell kids about 'tricky people' instead. Tricky people are often described as people that give kids a 'thumbs down' feeling or a nervous feeling in their tummy.

Most people give kids a 'thumbs up' feeling but the odd person makes the child feel negative or uncertain. Parents should speak to their kids about this and encourage them to chat about who makes them feel good inside and who doesn't.

The statistics say it all; a whopping 93pc of child sexual abusers know the child already and so your child is much more likely to be abused by someone they know such as a relative, someone in authority or a friendly neighbour than by a stranger. Tricky people come in all shapes and sizes - they might be other children their own age or older kids or adults - and it really doesn't matter whether the kids know them or not; what is important is that kids learn to protect themselves by first of all listening to their gut instinct, and secondly by acting upon it.

The good news is that if you can teach your children how to stand their ground you will be giving them a gift that will help them throughout their life; because not only will it help them handle predatory adults but it will also help them to handle bullies, overpowering friends, peer pressure and power- crazy bosses in the future.

In a famous US study, child sexual abusers interviewed in jail were asked what made them choose one child over another. Almost all of them agreed that they go for the docile children, the obedient, the naive, the less confident and the quiet children - basically, the ones they believe would do as they're told and wouldn't tell on them. And so it is more important for parents to teach their kids that, while they should have respect for everyone, in certain contexts, mindlessly obeying their elders isn't necessarily appropriate. Instead parents need to teach their kids how to act according to their own values and how to set boundaries with anyone who makes them feel a bit off.

A child's most important weapon is their voice; their 'strong voice' isn't high-pitched or shaky but is in a deeper tone and at a louder volume then their normal voice. Children can practise with their parents how to stand strong with their shoulders squared and say clearly and loudly, 'No. My mammy wouldn't let me' or 'Stop right now'.

Telling children not to talk to strangers is an alluringly simple message but it doesn't work because life is usually more complicated than that. In reality, the so-called bogie man is much more likely to find your children by posing as a 'friend' on social media than anywhere else. Not many parents are aware that a third of all child sexual abuse is performed by someone under the age of 18 and a hefty proportion of this begins online and so dealing with the awkward situation that is arising between your child and their strange online 'friend' is, in reality, what parents should really be talking about instead of 'stranger danger'. If, instead of banning their kids from interacting with strangers, children instead learned how to spot tricky situations and how to head them off at the pass, they would be better prepared for life's difficulties.

One of the many reasons why children need to learn how to speak to appropriate strangers is because sometimes we need the kindness of strangers; sometimes we need to be able to spot someone appropriate and ask for help. Indeed, it's a good life lesson to learn to ask for help.

'Stranger danger' is simple and it rhymes; but that doesn't mean it's appropriate or helpful. There have been just two reported child abductions in the history of the state which may fall into the archetypal stranger danger abductions - Mary Boyle in 1977 and Philip Cairns in 1986 - and the latest revelations suggest that both children may have known their attackers. Teaching children about 'stranger danger' is hopelessly outdated, it causes serious anxiety to children and it doesn't help them. This annoying phrase should be consigned to the same bin that holds Bob Geldof's cringeworthy 'Phone wreckers are idiots' because it's about as useful and as effective.

Stella O'Malley is a psychotherapist, writer and public speaker with more than 10 years' experience as a mental health professional. Much of Stella's counselling and teaching work is with parents and young people which culminated in the recent publication of her book 'Cotton Wool Kids - what's making Irish parents paranoid?' by Mercier Press

Sunday Independent