Talking to your toddler about strangers

Protecting children from danger is an issue parents and caregivers think about daily. From covering electrical outlets and closing off stairs to the proper fitting car seats and parking lot safety, adults spend hours keeping an eye out for situations that could cause a toddler harm. But what about talking to strangers? How can parents teach a child to be safe without scaring them into being afraid of all strangers?

Why it’s okay to talk to strangers

If the phrase “Don’t talk to strangers” is something you grew up with, then you might need to adjust how you talk to your children about interacting with older teens and adults. In reality, most people your child will meet are not dangerous.

Baby will spend more time interacting with safe strangers who they meet at the grocery store, playground, and even school than they will with the stranger who is trying to lure them away from the yard. Rather than making “Don’t talk to strangers” a hard and fast rule, spend time talking about who is safe and why.

Start with safe strangers

An easy way to introduce the idea of strangers to them is to start with safe strangers – after all, the goal is to have them recognize that not all strangers are bad. Have them identify who they think a safe stranger is in a given area (often, the most likely a person they can go to for help is an authority figure, like a firefighter, manager of a store, police officer, etc.).

When you are at the grocery store or a large event such as a carnival, ask them to point out the safe strangers. You can even have them practice approaching a police officer (by themself) and asking for help. Repeating this exercise will help them learn to understand what an interaction with a safe person feels like, and help them begin to identify what to look for and be aware of when confronted with a dangerous situation (or stranger).

How to talk about dangerous situations

The National Crime Prevention Council says the most important way parents can protect their children is to teach them to be wary of potentially dangerous situations – this will help them when dealing with strangers as well as with known adults who may not have good intentions.

Even though your child is almost three years old (and understanding a whole lot more than they did a year ago), it’s still important to keep the concepts simple, use short and concise instructions or tips, and role-play made-up scenarios with them. Kids often need real-life situations to imprint directions and consequences in their mind, and practicing how they are going to interact with a stranger can help them make sense of the lesson you are trying to teach.

It’s also important to talk to your toddler about how to recognize suspicious behavior, and what to do when they experience it. For example, if an adult approaches them and asks for help (this is one of the more common ways strangers try to gain access to children), teach them to get away from the situation as fast as they can and go to the nearest safe adult.

Other ways to talk about staying safe

Parents can also talk with their kids about proactive, or positive ways to stay safe. For example, if your toddler wants to go to the playground, talk to them about always asking a friend or sibling to go with them. Partnering up with a friend or other family member while playing at a public place can keep them safe, and potentially keep strangers away.

Also, take time to point out safe places to them when you are out and about. Talk about where to go if they get lost at a store, or if you get separated at a sporting event or community activity. Teach them the steps to take when they get lost: take a deep breath, look for an adult with a name tag or a mom with kids, and tell them you are lost. And most importantly, reassure your child that if they ever feel scared or uncomfortable, it’s okay to say no, run away, and scream for help.

About the author:
Sara Lindberg is a freelance writer focusing on parenting, health, and wellness. She is passionate about all things fitness and health and loves spending time with her husband, daughter, and son. 

  • Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph. “How Can I Teach Kids to Be Smart About Strangers?” Kids Health. The Nemours Foundation, January 2017. Retrieved August 22 2017.

“What To Teach Kids About Strangers.” National Crime Prevention Council. National Crime Prevention Council, 2017. Retrieved July 22 2017.

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