Inside Out, Outside In

What we bring to the world, and what it brings to us

Lessons for Parents From the Horrific Cleveland Kidnappings

How to talk with your kids about strangers and other adults

Co-Author: Steve Schlozman, MD

How many times have we said, or heard this: “Now, kids…don’t talk with strangers.”

It’s good advice. However, given the recent horrific events in Cleveland, some parents might very appropriately worry that this particular bit of wisdom is due for re-evaluation. After all, it appears to have been a potentially friendly neighbor who kidnapped the three girls who went missing 10 years ago

This is of course an extreme example of a particular narrative that we hear over and over again in the 21rst century. “We can’t let our kids play outside like we did,” we say to ourselves. “The world has just changed too much.”

But where does that leave us? What do we say to our children as we struggle to maintain the shaky balance between ensuring safety and at the same teaching independence and reasonable trust in the world and the community in which we all live?

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This is among the most vexing questions of modern parenthood. We certainly don’t want our kids to see a trusted uncle or coach as a potential villain – that would create an emotionally untenable world where all individuals, no matter how well known, are deemed potentially dangerous. That’s no way to grow up.

And yet, the alleged perpetrator in Cleveland was the father of one of the prisoner’s close friend. How do we deal with this dilemma?

There is of course no perfect or straightforward answer to this question. Events like what happened in Cleveland are indeed extremely rare. Understandable media attention can create the impression that the world is in fact far worse than it actually is. At the same time, though, we have to find a way to increase awareness among our children of the potential dangers inherent in our world. This is itself no small task.

Let’s begin, then, by looking at this from a general overview, and then specifically find ways to talk with different kids at different ages.

For children of all ages, what can we do to?

Know Your Child

• Remember that every child is different; the way you present your words of safety needs therefore to be tailored to your individual child. So, the first principle is to KNOW YOUR CHILD. Parents are good at this. In most cases, no one knows a kid better than the kid’s parents. There are 8 year olds who will understand and not be particularly bothered that even a well-known neighbor might have somewhat sketchy “issues”, and there are 12 year olds who will freak out, have nightmares, and feel that he or she can never trust anyone ever again.

After you have determined how your child will likely respond to the topic, use your own parental modeling and other examples about how good people treat each other: “You know how Coach Bill treated you,” you might say. “Well, he’s a great guy.”

 Managing Anxiety

  • These conversations provide the groundwork for helping kids to be MINDFUL and DISCRIMINATING. Kids learn to trust their instincts based on the instincts that you model.
  •  Remember that your non-verbal manner is often as powerful as your words. If you are telling your children that they are safe and at the same time you’re really worried and upset about potential harm, they’ll pick up on your anxiety. Try to be aware of your inner feelings while you are talking to your kids and help keep the feelings you experience and what you express to your children emotionally consistent. What does this mean developmentally? For an older teen, it might be very much like the guidance of a trusted mentor. For school-age children, however, it may be best not to talk with them about how safe the world is when you are fraught with worries.
  •  Remember, we cannot prevent all dangers or harm to our kids. We can do our best to educate them, to improve their awareness of the world, and to teach and then allow them to trust their “gut reactions” as well as rely on others for feedback. It is of course terribly hard to live with the uncertainties in life. The alternative, though, is not possible. We can’t allow our kids the fantasy that we have mastered uncertainty. Instead, we want our kids to expect and prepare for uncertainty. In this light, our own parental anxieties are often alleviated by guidance and comfort from other parents.

Different Advice For kids of Different Ages:

Pre-School Age Kids

Young children should generally know that they should never be alone, walk with or talk with strangers no matter how nice they seem. They are far too young to know the intentions of others or to trust any internal instincts. Kids this age need fixed, concrete rules

They need to be told that if any adult tries to take them alone someplace without asking mom or dad, the answer is “no.” This will not be hard for them to understand; they typically need permission for almost everything they do.

It is also not to early to start talking with younger kids about the kinds of things kids, teens, and adults do to play with children – the kinds of games that are “good” and “fun” and the ones that are not. This is also the time to ask them about touching, tickling, and other physical contact, particularly touching their “private parts”.

School-age Kids

School aged kids know more about the dangers in the world. They also are “rule bound” and need some specific guidelines about what to do and not to do. At the same time, they are clearly more “on their own”, though still in “well-protected” environments. Sports teams, going to sleep-overs and after-school programs are all examples of the increased but controlled autonomy of the school aged child. They are more advanced than pre-school kids, but still really do not know yet how to discriminate another person, older kid or adult, who might harbor dangerous motives. They tend to be trusting, particularly of folks they know.

They also should be told that if they are going out someplace, they should go with a friend and to a place parents know. For example, if out at a restaurant, and your daughter and her friend want to go next door to the toy store, and you know the owner of the toy store, this may be just fine. You should let them know you are right there next to them.

This is a great age to begin talking with them about the emerging paradox that is central to these issues: the world is generally a safe place, but there are also adults who might not be as nice as they seem.

Give concrete examples: “Remember you thought your day camp counselor, Gary, was really nice, and then he started choosing favorites and picked on other kids?” Or closer to home: “Now remember how nice cousin Frank is until he starts getting into fights with dad and has a really bad temper?” These kinds of very simple vignettes help school aged kids to begin to see that what appears one way at first, may not be so good in other situations.

Teenagers

Teens increasingly have the capacity to understand that behaviors may be deceptive – that motives, even negative ones, may be hidden. They may have been deceived or betrayed by a friend or relative and they are often able and willing to talk about these issues. At the same time, they may have kids that they never knew were their friends stand up to a teen who is bullying them on Facebook. Or they may have been friends with another teen, who then makes nasty comments about them and then is “de-friended” by the cyber bully and many other friends.

It is all the more important to have conversations with adolescents about the nature, course, and variability in relationships.

But keep in mind teens have a knack for listening when they want to, so choose your moments carefully. Share your own experiences – how you made and lost friends; how your friends earned and lost your trust. This will deepen their awareness of others, and also help build up their internal instincts about trusting or being wary of others’ intentions.

And, depending on your personal preference and your understanding of your child’s tolerance, you could watch some of the news with your child. Teenagers are old enough to process pretty horrible circumstances, and indeed they might sense your censorship of the news as a sign that you are not ready to address important topics. With this in mind, make the news into a discussion. How could these young teens get into that car? What would you have done?

Young teens pose difficult problems. Many early adolescents feel invulnerable and often do not have the judgment to discern safety. Take the 13 year-old who wants to ride the MBTA into town with a friend. Would you allow this? This is a personal and individual decision, and there are cogent arguments for both allowing and preventing these kinds of ventures. Regardless, this kind of desire among your new teenager signals an increasingly approaching time in which she and her friends are going to need some pretty concrete ground rules. Give them a cell phone if you can. Tell them you need to know where they are. These ground rules must be discussed in advance, and when your daughter comes home, it is probably a good idea to have a discussion of what happened, what went well, and what could have gone wrong.

Difficult but Critical Conversations

As always, guidelines for talking to kids about this issue cannot be rigidly codified. These are terribly difficult conversations to have with our kids, particularly because we have our own fears about their safety.

However, think of this as an ongoing, long-term process that is intended to help our kids learn how to live with uncertainty and to minimize risk. We want our kids to be cautiously curious about relationships, to avoid blind acceptance, and above all, to trust their emotional reactions in social situations. It’s a process, and that process is especially important to remember when horrible news emerges.

For more information see commonhealth.wbur.org

Eugene Beresin, M.D., is Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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