Ask scared kids what scares them the most and they'll likely tick off things like spiders, horror movies, thunderstorms or the dark.
Parents have an entirely different set of fears when it comes to their children: What if they start crossing a street without seeing a car hurtling around the bend? What if they find a weapon or sharp object on the ground? What if someone tries to lure them away in a car, at a park or in the aisles of a toy store? What if a child predator contacts them on the Internet?
Numerous surveys find today's parents more anxious than ever about their children's well-being. Ironically, research has also shown that kids whose parents are overly anxious or overprotective are more likely to develop anxiety problems of their own. In other words, all our fears aren't really helping our children develop into well-adjusted, safety-savvy people; in fact, our fears may actually be getting in the way.
"We're all well-meaning parents," says Pattie Fitzgerald, founder of Safely Ever After, a service which teaches personal safety to children. "We want to teach our kids to be safe," Fitzgerald says, "but if you scare a child or make a child paranoid about everything, then they won't have any judgment calls to make about a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down situation or person. If you're afraid of everything, that's as bad as being afraid of nothing because your judgment is clouded."
How do you give your kids an arsenal of safety information without scaring them or making them jaded about the world? Child safety experts offer these common-sense, practical tips that put the emphasis on "safety," not "scary."
1. Avoid scare tactics. "Scare tactics don't work, whether you're teaching a kid how to drive the car or to be safe at a park," says Fitzgerald. "People tune out scare tactics. You either tune it out or you get so scared, you're immobile."
Instead, Fitzgerald says, speak to children about safety in a "loving, easygoing manner."
Teach kids about safety in an upbeat way, advises psychologist Doreen Arcus, Ph.D., who has studied the link between overprotective parenting and child anxiety.
"I remember years ago picking up my child from daycare and we were walking outside," Arcus recalls. "I was slipping and sliding on the icy sidewalks and I was saying things like, -Oh! Oh! It's slippery!' And then I thought to myself, -Wait a minute. Let's recast this.'"
Instead of frightening her 3-year-old with alarming statements like "Oh, this is ice! We could slip and fall and get hurt," Arcus instead exclaimed. "Oh, isn't this exciting! It's a challenge - walking on the ice. But we can do it. We can meet this head on!"
2. Set safety rules in a calm, age-appropriate way. Set clear rules and limits, but don't express those limits with a sense of fear. Instead, Arcus suggests, "put it out there as the parameters of safe and acceptable behavior."
Very young children don't need explanations for your safety rules. Toddlers and preschoolers will not understand the concept of a bad person or that their actions could lead to serious injury, notes Alyssa Dver, director and family safety expert at the Center to Prevent Lost Children. "You teach them the rules. You don't necessarily have to get into the details about what's going to happen if they touch a hot pot; you just make it clear: -Don't do that!'"
With older kids, age-appropriate explanations are necessary. When an 8-year-old asks why he shouldn't wander off with someone whom he doesn't know, "tell the child what he can hear at that age: -Because not everyone is nice and some people might want to hurt you,'" says Arcus.
When explaining personal safety to a teen, you can be more detailed about reasons why the adolescent should never get into a car with a driver who's been drinking.
3. Teach children judgment skills. Experts caution against teaching personal safety from a "stranger danger" point of view. Ninety percent of child sexual abuse occurs with someone the child knows, including casual acquaintances such as a mailman, newspaper deliverer or neighbor, Fitzgerald says.
Instead of warning kids about strangers, she says, "focus on teaching kids about how to recognize a -tricky person.' A tricky person can be someone you know who asks you to do something that makes you feel a sense of -uh-oh' or gives you a sick, uncomfortable feeling inside."
By taking the "stranger danger" concept out and focusing on "tricky people," Fitzgerald says, children learn to judge their personal safety not by what another person looks like, but rather by the circumstance: what the person is saying and not saying, and what is considered appropriate and inappropriate behavior.
The same kind of circumstantial judgment can apply to other safety situations. You can teach your child that a sharp object, a weapon or even an unfamiliar animal could cause harm and should be left alone if found in the yard or on a sidewalk, for example.
4. Equip kids with coping skills. This gives them specific ways to take control of a risky situation. Among the most effective coping lessons:
• Teach children, including teens, to always check with the adult they trust most before doing something outside of that adult's supervision. Tell them to "check first" before leaving your home or yard. "Check first" before changing plans, such as going to friend A's house and then deciding to leave from there to visit friend B. "Check first" before answering an Instant Message or email from someone the child doesn't know.
• Teach children that if they're lost or separated from their parents and need help, they should approach another mom. Telling a child to look for a police officer may intimidate him; furthermore, he may not easily find a police officer. And telling him to look for a store employee may confuse him, says Dver. "Four-year-olds don't know a store employee from a beach lifeguard, so you make it really easy. They know what mommies look like - mommies have kids. We've got 18-month-old kids who can point out a mommy even if they can't speak. And mommies are statistically safer than others."
• Have children memorize your cell phone number or, at the very least, always carry the phone number with them. Presumably, a parent would always be reachable by cell phone. Memorizing a home phone number doesn't do the child any good if the parent isn't home to begin with, particularly if the child gets lost while on a trip to a store, park or other place with the parent.
Coping skills are the best tools a parent can give a child when it comes to personal safety because of their empowering ability.
"You can be ready to meet challenges or you can be overwhelmed by challenges," Arcus says. "We want to let our children know some of the challenges out in the world and to let them know they have the capacity to meet those - that there are things they can do."
Deirdre Wilson is a senior editor with Dominion Parenting Media and Parenthood.com.
Quick Safety Smarts
Teach your kids to:
• Remember that "safe grown-ups" do not ask children for help. If someone is asking a child to approach a car, to come help an injured puppy, or to leave a place together, that child should say "No," and find his parent or caregiver immediately.
• Always "check in" with their most trusted adult before doing anything outside of that adult's supervision.
• Recognize and pay attention to the "uh-oh" feeling - that uncomfortable sensation warning them of a potentially dangerous person or situation.
• American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) - www.aap.org - The AAP Web site offers tips on a wide variety of child safety issues, searchable by topic.
• The Center to Prevent Missing Children - www.preventlostchildren.org - Offers seminars on personal safety and tips on what to do if a child becomes lost.
• Safely Ever After - www.safelyeverafter.com - This Web site offers practical, child-friendly ways to ensure personal safety.
• Safe Kids USA - www.usa.safekids.org - This Web site offers tips on everything from toy safety to pedestrian, car and burn safety.
© Parenthood.com, used with permission.
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