Parents I don't know have recently been coming up to me in public places asking for help teaching their children when, if ever, they should talk to strangers - which is ironic since I am a stranger to them as well. That being said, let me see if I can approach the topic of strangers and make dealing with them a little less fearful for everyone.
Unfortunately there are both nice strangers and dangerous strangers and telling the difference is not easy for a child. Ideally you don't want your child talking to any stranger. But there may be a time when your child gets accidentally lost in a public place or experiences an accident while out with friends and needs to seek help from someone they do not know. So rather than focus on trying to teach our children not to talk to strangers, it is better to teach them to be wary of anyone who acts strangely or makes them feel uneasy whether they know them or not.
If they are approached by someone they don’t know, teach them to stay alert keep that person at arm’s length, back away and try not to talk to him or her. And of course they should never go for a ride with a stranger that approaches them.
If your child gets lost and must talk to a stranger to get help, have them approach a police officer, security guard or store employee first. If none of these are around then tell them to seek out a woman rather than a man, or people with children since these types of people are almost never apt to sexually or physically abuse a child.
School age children are not immune either. They should stay in groups when not under adult supervision and should pick out safe spots they can run to if they’re approached by someone they don’t know or trust. The house of a friend or a nearby school are two good examples.
Remind your child that almost always a person who could potentially abuse them physically or sexually is not a stranger at all, so perhaps the most important rule is to tell your child to trust their own instincts. If someone makes them feel uncomfortable, or if they feel something is just not right, they need to walk away immediately even if they cannot explain why.
If you think your child may have been sexually abused, please call 211 or the Department of Children and Family Services at 1-800-649-5285 if you live in Vermont. New York residents can call the New York State Central Register for Child Abuse and Maltreatment at 1-800-635-1522.
Hopefully you’ll find tips like this anything but strange when it comes to helping your child know better what to do about strangers, and people they may know but not feel comfortable being around..
Lewis First, M.D., is chief of Pediatrics at Vermont Children's Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. You can also catch "First with Kids" weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at http://www.FletcherAllen.org/firstwithkids