Kidnappings and sexual abuse have always been a parent's worst nightmare. This week our hearts go out to Jaycee Dugard and her parents. We can only imagine a smidgeon of their suffering.
Our instinct is to keep our kids inside and watch them like a hawk, but it's crucial to keep things in perspective. The fact is, our kids are more likely to die in our bathtubs than be abducted.
Only one in 500,000 children1 are abducted by a stranger. Most kidnappers are someone the child personally knows. In fact, research shows that 85 percent2 of kids found alive after being abducted did not consider their kidnapper to be a stranger.
While there are no guarantees for our children's health and well-being, research shows that we can help kids learn simple safety tips so they will be less likely to be harmed. Though you may fear that talking about such frightening issues will scare the pants off your kids, not doing so is a big mistake. The secret is bringing up such topics in a relaxed way (just as you discuss other daily matters) and not to cover too many skills at once (as well as, of course, the kinds of safety know-how he needs at that point in his life).
Here are a few safety strategies from my book, Big Book of Parenting Solutions, you can review with your child.
Keep close tabs.
Know where your kids are. Period. Know their friends and their friend's parents. Have your tween get into the habit of checking in with you so you know where he is at all times. Consider purchasing an inexpensive cell phone with a GPS tracking device for a younger child, or a simple no-frills phone for your tween so you can monitor his comings and goings.
Teach "not okay" touching.
Teach "private" body parts and the difference between "okay" and "not okay" touches. Then help your child to say "No!" if someone tries to touch him, or makes him feel afraid, uncomfortable or confused, and that he needs to get away as quickly as possible. Practice saying "no" using a firm and determined voice.
Emphasize, "No secrets allowed."
Set a rule: "If any adult tells you to keep a secret, tell me right away." Discussion starters: "You can tell me anything, so don't ever feel embarrassed or ashamed." "Remember our rule: we don't keep secrets if someone could be hurt. If any adult tells you to keep a secret, come and tell me right away."
Help your child recognize suspicious behavior.
Instead of scaring (and possibly even confusing) your kids with the "Stranger = Danger" approach, experts suggest that a better approach is to teach kids to recognize suspicious situations. Here are a few adult behaviors to teach your kids to be aware of:
• An adult asking for help to find his child or puppy.
• Someone who offers you a treat or present.
• Someone who feigns an emergency and says Mommy or Daddy is hurt.
• Someone who fakes being a friend of Mom or Dad.
Remind your child he can always ask a stranger for help but a stranger does not ask kids for help. Role-play suspicious situations such as these with your child, so he'll become more alert and can respond quicker if the real issue ever arises.
Establish a family secret code.
Choose some simple, memorable phrase like "geronimo" and then stress that the code must remain secret. The only ones who know are your family, a designated family friend or relative who is your emergency contact, or trusted individuals (such as a nanny or ongoing babysitter). When I deal with children I am picking up for rescue and escort them to a shelter, the first thing I tell the child is the secret code the child's mother gave me. I then instruct the child to not get in the car with me until he calls his mother on my phone, standing several yards from my car to verify this is the mother's request. Tell your child the same rule.
Create a code via text.
Create a secret message via text that your older child can use on his cell to reach you. It should be simple and short (123 or ABC) and should never be used for anything but a real emergency. A young girl two weeks ago in California was able to text her mother that she was in danger and needed help. Her mother called the police, had that phone traced and saved her daughter from a potential tragedy.
Emphasize never meeting someone you met online.
Forbid your child to ever divulge personal information such as his name (or yours), address, birthday or phone number online. Emphasize that your child should never, under absolutely any circumstances, meet anyone he has connected with by phone or online. Explain that someone posing as an 11-year old online could actually be a 30-year-old child molester.
Teach: "Drop, yell and run."
If your child needs to get away quickly, teach him to drop whatever he is carrying (you run faster if you're not carrying something), yell and make a loud scene, and run. If possible, run toward an adult and yell, "Help! This is not my dad!" If he is grabbed he should fight back, scream and hold on to anything -- such as his bicycle handles or car door -- to make it more difficult for an abductor to take him. Emphasize that you never will be upset if your child loses something or hurts someone if he's trying to protect himself.
Review "trusted" caregivers.
Encourage your child come to you and tell you anything. Also name specific caregivers your child should go to in case you are not available (a specific teacher, a relative, a neighbor).
Make sure your child knows how to dial 9-1-1 for help and that your phones are programmed with your number so your child can reach you. Remind your child repeatedly to never open your house door to a stranger. Never tell someone your parents are not home. If your child has a cell phone, program the speed dial for 9-1-1.
Any tough topic should never be a one-time discussion but an ongoing conversation. The key point to make is always: "Remember, I love you no matter what." Your child needs to know you are always there to help him whatever the situation may be. Now go hug your child.
1One in 500,000 abductions are by complete strangers: P. Statman, On the Safe Side, NY HarperCollins, 1995, p. 21.
2National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) research found 85 percent of kids found alive after being abducted did not consider their kidnapper to be a stranger: Nancy Huehnergarth, "Danger Zone," Parents, Jan 2005, p. 155.
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Dr. Michele Borba is the author of over 22 books including the upcoming Big Book of Parenting Solutions. She is a leading educational consultant, national parenting expert, contributor to iVillage, adviser to Parents magazine, regular guest on NBC's Today show, and mom of three.