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Stranger danger as a phrase originated in the 1960s when the US began to run a series of child safety campaigns. The phrase quickly grew into a common way of warning children about the dangers of people they didn’t know. McGruff the Crime Dog became the most notable figurehead in the 1980s for teaching children about crime trends and concerns, such as stranger danger. Even today McGruff is still used on TV, at schools, community events, and in PSAs.  

When does stranger danger start? 

The CDC recommends that you should start teaching your child about strangers as early as age 3. It’s at this age when children “become more independent and begin to focus more on adults and children outside of the family.” With an increased curiosity in others outside of the family, this makes it the right time to start teaching your child about stranger danger–i.e., about strangers and the potential risks associated with them. 

How to Prevent Stranger Danger

Abduction and sexual assault are the most common worries associated with strangers and children. NCMEC states that one of the most common questions from parents is “how can I stop this from happening to my child?” While teaching your child about stranger danger is an important preventative measure, it’s important to note that most child abductions involve a relative or someone they already know. That is why NCMEC recommends that it’s more important to teach your child how to identify and respond to a potentially threatening situation involving a stranger, instead of what types of people to avoid. This knowledge and awareness also teaches children to apply the same reasoning in a situation that feels wrong or uncomfortable even with someone they do know.  

The following includes some steps from NCMEC on how to teach and talk to your child about stranger danger: 

1. Define the term “stranger” and explain the difference between good and bad strangers

A stranger is defined as “a person that is unknown or with whom one is unacquainted.” 

Good strangers are people that your child does not know but who could be helpful to them. For example, if your child gets lost, good strangers are people that they could approach safely and ask for help from, like sales associates or emergency personnel.  

On the other hand, a bad stranger is also someone your child does not know but is a person who might have negative intentions. When it comes down to it, good or not, a stranger is someone your child does not know which makes it confusing for them to understand which strangers are good versus bad.   

2. Do and don’t say – try using the following language

Don’t say: Never talk to strangers. 

Do say: You should not approach just anyone. If you need help, look for a uniformed police officer, a store clerk with a nametag, or a parent with a child. 

Don’t say: Stay away from people you don’t know. 

Do say: It’s important for you to get my permission before going anywhere with anyone.

Don’t say: You can tell someone is bad just by looking at them. 

Do say: Pay attention to what people do. Tell me right away if anyone asks you to keep a secret, makes you feel uncomfortable, or tries to get you to go somewhere with them.

3. Teach tricks that abductors might use and role-play

Common ways that strangers might lure or entice a child include offering them a ride, candy, or money, showing them an animal, or asking the child for help. Utilize these examples in role-playing games with your child to practice the right way to respond in a stranger danger situation. Here are some great scenarios to practice. 

4. Create safety plans

If your child is old enough to be out alone then it’s a good idea to create a safety plan. First you will want to start by talking to your child about what they should do if they get lost or are on their own and need help. This includes pointing out safe places to go for help if they are on their own, teaching them important names and numbers, and a reminder of who is a safe stranger option to ask for help from. 

5. Take action! 

Explain that if your child does end up in an uncomfortable situation it is okay to be rude and say “no.” If necessary, they should scream, kick, yell, and run. “83% of children who escaped their would-be abductors did something proactive.” So, when in doubt, the best thing your child can do is react and act. 

6. Additional reminders 

The following are things to remind your child about on a regular basis, no matter their age. 

    • If they encounter a stranger danger scenario, they should always tell a trusted adult about what happened and how it made them feel 
    • Never get in a car with someone unless they have their parents’ permission 
    • Do not change plans without asking for permission first 
    • When out with friends, stay in a group or at the very least with a buddy 

For more information on stranger danger, child abductions, and resources specifically for your child explore KidSmartz on the NCMEC website.