This article comes from a website called “Empowering Parents: Child Behavior Help.” This is an excellent site with articles from different experts on topics ranging from keeping kids safe, using technology, dealing with different behavioral issues, and general parenting advice.
Keeping Kids Safe from Predators Online and Offline
By Sara Bean, M.Ed.
Jerry Sandusky. Michael Jackson. Mary Kay Letourneau. All of these individuals were accused and/or convicted of committing unspeakable crimes against children. While certainly upsetting, these high profile cases are a good opportunity to spark a conversation with your kids about staying safe, as parents are the first and most powerful line of defense against predators. When parents educate their children, and make home a safe place for kids to ask questions and talk about their experiences, children are less likely to become victims. Having a discussion with your child about online and offline safety isn’t always easy or comfortable, but it is important.
Children need facts and skills to protect themselves. They also need to know that you will calmly listen and understand what is going on, before reacting.
Please note that the information contained in this article is an overview and does not account for every type of predator, every prevention method, or every possible warning sign of abuse. If you suspect that your child may be a victim, or that someone is attempting to victimize them, contact your local law enforcement or child protection agency immediately. ChildHelp, a national child abuse reporting and prevention program, is another option. You can reach ChildHelp 24 hours a day at 1-800-422-4453.
But I Don’t Want to Scare Them
Talking about predators can be scary, especially for younger kids. So before you talk to your child, think about what you want to say, and how you want to say it. What do you want your child to learn? How will you help them learn that? How might your child react?
Let your child know that while most people wouldn’t hurt them, there are some people who do the wrong thing. Tell them that you will always do your best to protect them. Remind them that one of the reasons you have rules and limits is to help keep them safe. Reassurance is key.
Encourage your child not to keep secrets, especially if the secret makes them feel weird, uncomfortable, nervous, or unsafe. Your child needs to know that they can tell you tell you about these things, and that you can handle it calmly. Stress that you will love them, no matter what. The bottom line is that children need facts and skills to protect themselves. But, they also need to know that you will calmly listen and understand what is going on, before reacting.
Be mindful when sharing specific real-world examples. I remember being about 5-years-old and my mother telling me there was a kidnapper going around in a gray van taking children. This was absolutely terrifying! I don’t remember much discussion about what I should do if approached, but I do remember being frightened for years. My point? Giving specific examples and no personal safety skills or reassurance can be very scary. Instead, if your child brings up a question, or if you see something on TV or in a movie, use these examples to talk about how your child can protect himself, how he should react if that happened in real life, and so on.
Teach Age-Appropriate Skills
Teaching your child specific, age-appropriate skills can help them stay safe. As children age, the knowledge and skills they need changes based on the risks they are likely to encounter. Teaching safety is an ongoing process that can start as early as the pre-school years.
For example, young children need to know not to talk to strangers (and really understand what a stranger is). They should be taught not to get in a car with strangers and the tricks strangers might use to lure them, like candy, puppies, or “your mom asked me to come get you.” You can also show them what to do if a stranger approaches them in this manner, like yelling “No!” and trying to run.
Meanwhile, older children need to understand that online, not everyone is who they say they are. Talk with them about how to spot a possible predator (for instance, if someone online is asking for their picture). Explain what they should do if someone is making them uncomfortable (for example, they should always tell you, even if they know how to “block” that person).
Teens need to understand how using alcohol and drugs leave them vulnerable to sexual assault. Talk about how they might prevent someone from putting drugs in their beverages in order to later take advantage of them, like always keeping an eye on their drink.
Addressing the "It Won’t Happen to Me" Syndrome
Some younger children may be so innocent and naïve they have a hard time believing that someone could want to hurt them. Teens, on the other hand, can often feel invincible. While teens know that kids can and do get hurt, they think, “That will never happen to me.” You can’t change your child’s thinking, but you can use your actions to let them know that this is a serious issue.
When talking about serious subjects like safety, remove all distractions—the tone of the conversation should reflect the magnitude of its importance. Have the conversation at a time and place that will allow you to talk face-to- face, rather than in the car or by text. Turn off all electronics during the discussion.
Have clear rules and consequences. Let’s say the kids aren’t following your rules about using the internet; then perhaps they lose their computer privileges until they can show you they can make safe choices in other areas for a couple of days. Or, imagine your child takes off after school and doesn’t tell you where she is going. Maybe she loses her phone until she follows the rules for two days. If you’re uncomfortable about taking the phone away for safety reasons, contact your service provider to find out if “always allowed numbers” or other parental controls are available.Actions speak louder than words; if your words and actions do not match, your child is likely to brush you off.
Online Safety Precautions
Since kids of all ages go online (whether on the computer, through their gaming systems or even your smartphone), education about online safety is as important as safety in the community. Even very young kids need safety rules, such as what sites and apps are okay for them to use. Establish very clear expectations about the use of technology, backed by consistent consequences. Some rules to consider implementing with your kids:
I write articles based on my experience as a therapist or a training or conference attendee. Many of these articles are written by others who are experts in their field and I share their information as resources for others.