As a parent, I find myself worried about our daughter’s safety.
At the playground I worry about the monkey bars. When she is on a scooter I worry whether her helmet is on right. I know I have this in common with most parents.
There are other dangers that concern many of us, but seem more difficult to control, ranging from the danger of our child being verbally, physically or sexually abused to engaging in risky behaviors when they are old enough to be at home unsupervised. We hear a lot in the news about unfortunate things happening to children, but little about how to protect them.
Start by educating children in an age-appropriate way about staying safe. This includes teaching them to avoid situations and people that might be risky. Unfortunately, most abuse happens in an environment where we assume our children should be safe – with a relative, family friend or other person entrusted with our children’s safety – so we need to do more than this.
Preschool-age children need to learn the appropriate names for their body parts and know that they have the right to say “no” to any touches that make them uncomfortable – no matter who does the touching. Discuss with your child that it is important to tell you if anyone says to keep a secret.
Teach your children your phone number and how and when to call 911. A friend of mine once saw a parent in a crowd situation write her own phone number on her child’s arm with an indelible pen – not a bad idea if you are concerned about getting separated.
Talk with your children about staying away from strangers and how to get away from a scary situation. Recently, a local fifth-grade girl was approached by a man she did not know who offered her a ride to school. She said “no” multiple times, went to a bus stop where other kids were waiting and then told the bus driver about the incident. This is the yell (yell “no”), run (to a safe place) and tell (a trusted adult) concept that all children should be taught.
Middle school and teenage kids also need protection. Discuss a buddy system for times when your child is away from home. Develop a plan for staying safe at home if children need to be alone – such as not opening the door to strangers, not letting others know they are alone and not taking medications that are in the cabinets.
Establish and frequently review your rules (for inside and outside the home) regarding sexual conduct, Internet use, substance use and curfew hours. Help your children develop plans for avoiding situations with their peers that would make them uncomfortable or more likely to break those rules.
Being sensitive to your child’s reaction, responses and level of communication is crucial. Keep it a discussion and listen as well as give advice. Teens are more likely to follow rules when they understand and take ownership of them.
Some parents may find these discussions difficult. It is natural to not want to let a young child know that there are “bad people” in the world. A teenager who is already rebellious may not cooperate with our protection efforts. There are resources to help you, including www.safeteens.com and www.keepyourchildsafe.org, which has everything from conversation starters to printable information that you can read with your young child. And, of course, your primary health care provider is a good resource, too. Keeping children safe is always a group effort.