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The 'stranger danger' message isn't protecting our children from abuse

We need to teach children how to differentiate between threatening situations and threatening people, whether those people are familiar or not.

New Statesman
A girl screams as police officer Mike Fuller demonstrates how quickly a child can be kidnapped on Kid's Safety Day in California. Image: Getty

Recently, Daybreak performed an 'experiment' to see if children would leave a public park with someone they don't know. We have a clean link to the Daily Mail piece here. We have removed photographs from this link, as we are concerned about the ethical nature of an experiment that pixelates the adult 'stranger' but not the children who were involved.

Some of the children offered to help the ‘stranger’ in finding his lost dog - he was no doubt plausible, and will have been able to relate to the children in order to engage them in this experiment. Some of the children went with him, some started to and then changed their minds, and some were called back by their mothers before they were out of sight.

Children are compliant by nature.  We tell children that they should listen to adults, that they must do what adults tell them to do, and they must respond promptly to instructions.

Unless they are a ‘stranger’.

Now, I don't know about you, but I taught my child about stranger danger when she was quite small. When she was three years old, we went to see Father Christmas, and when he asked, “Have you been good this year?”, she responded by looking at me and whispering, “You said I shouldn't talk to strangers.” Cue much embarrassment by the jolly man in the red suit, and motherly pride that my teaching was having an impact.

How wrong I was.

Not long after that, I attended some training for my job called Protective Behaviours (PB). Now, as far as I'm concerned, PB should form the basis of all supportive work with children. Unfortunately, although schools teach about safety, not all of them discuss the intricacies of those physiological responses that can alert us; not just to danger, but to something ‘not quite right’.

Protective Behaviours has two themes, both simple and self-explanatory but needing a little expansion:

We all have the right to feel safe, all of the time.

Do most children know what feeling 'safe' feels like? Not in my experience. I've worked with many children (schools, children's services, women's services) and often, they have no idea what feeling safe means, as no-one taught them.

Children don't know what it means to feel safe. Have we absolved ourselves of the responsibility for teaching our children what it is to feel safe? 

Children need to be taught about risk, managing risk and being safe. Teaching them about safety means talking about feelings and emotions, and how those affect our physiological responses – something as simple as ‘tummy butterflies’ indicating that we are excited, nervous or anxious, for instance. Indeed, ignoring our physiological responses when we are unsafe is an issue for both children and adults. We ignore those 'early warning signs' for many reasons, one of them being mistrust in our body responses because we don't understand them. We don’t understand them, in turn, because nobody teaches us to.

Once a child understands what it is to feel safe, we can then talk about what to do when they don't.

 

Nothing is too awful, or too small, that we cannot talk to someone about it.

We all understand the 'awful'. We know that children are physically, sexually and emotionally abused (most often by those close to them) and neglected by adults who should care for them.

The 'too small' relates to minor issues that adults often dismiss: name-calling in the playground, feeling that they haven't got any friends, worrying about homework - all of which can cause children to feel anxious, worried or scared and therefore unsafe.

Protective Behaviours works on the basis that a child can talk to someone who makes them feel safe. Because without knowing what 'safe' is, children may not talk to anyone.

Once children understand how their physiology helps them understand their emotions, they can get help to be safe. Arbitrary decisions based on 'strangers' or people close to them are useless - in fact, they could be dangerous. This is because strangers are often those people who can help: a voice on a helpline, a social worker, a police officer, a support worker. How do we teach children to differentiate between 'adults who will help keep them safe' and 'strangers'? Without giving them the skills to understand their own right to safety and what it feels like, we can't.

 

This post isn't to say that we shouldn't teach children about stranger danger because the risk is low. Teaching children to differentiate between 'unsafe' and 'safe' adults gives them a space to talk, to be believed, and protects them more than any blanket 'don't talk to strangers' message ever will.

Children are not responsible for keeping themselves safe; that is the job of adults. Persisting with the notion that we can keep children safe by repeating the ‘don’t talk to strangers’ line is misleading and unhelpful.

We need to be having open and honest conversations with our children about their ‘early warning signs’, what it means to feel safe, who they can trust and where to get help from - and at the same time, we should be talking about those who do abuse children, as that is our responsibility too.

The biggest concern is that those conversations seem curiously lacking.

End Victimisation & Abuse are a women's collective. As survivors of stalking and domestic abuse, they prefer to remain anonymous. Find out more at everydayvictimblaming.com.