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Child Development

How To Keep Your Child (And Yourself) Safe From Strangers

Strategies to prevent your child from becoming a statistic

It seems almost every few months a story of a child abduction saturates the news. Amber alerts occur several times a year in many localities. Stories of children who vanished years or even decades past re-run every so often as reminders that some families remain locked in grief even as the rest of us have moved on---all of which leaves many of us with the impression that none of our children are really safe.

Though the frequency with which these stories appear and the way the media highlights them make it seem as if child abduction happens often, according to the U.S. Department of Justice approximately 12,100 children were abducted in 1999 by a true stranger (Table 3) (as opposed to a family member or family friend), which represents only 0.02% of the 73.5 million children under the age of 18 in the U.S. Of these only 115 were victims of "stereotypical kidnapping," defined as "crimes that involve someone the child doesn't know or someone of slight acquaintance, who holds the child overnight, transports the child 50 miles or more, kills the child, demands ransom, or intends to keep the child permanently."

On the other hand, if abduction happens to your child, that statistic remains a cold comfort. Further, a study by the Washington State's Attorney in 1997 found 74% of children abducted and murdered by strangers are killed within three hours of being abducted.


Classically, we try to protect our children by hovering around them when we can and by teaching them "not to talk to strangers" when we can't. Other typical suggestions include the following:

  1. Telling your children to walk and play in groups
  2. Defining clearly what a stranger is for your children
  3. Defining clearly which strangers are safe for your children (eg-policemen, firemen, etc)
  4. Teaching your children to ask for a secret code word when a stranger approaches them with a story that you sent them
  5. Teaching your children to avoid strangers who ask for their help (adults shouldn't need help from children for much of anything)
  6. Practice screaming with your children, "Help!"

I may be writing here far outside my area of expertise, but as the subject is well within my area of interest, I'd like to offer a counterintuitive suggestion to keep your children safe in situations where they find themselves out in the world alone and in need of help: rather than teach them not to talk to strangers, teach them to choose the stranger they talk to themselves.

The overall proportion of people in the world who mean children harm is actually quite small, so if a child chooses a stranger at random, preferably a woman (statistics on this are hard to find, but many law enforcement authorities believe most non-family member kidnappings are committed by men) the likelihood of them choosing someone who intends them harm is far lower than if the stranger chooses them. Though the proportion of people who offer unsolicited help to children who intend to harm them is small as well, this is also the group that likely contains all the people who do mean them harm, so it's not quite as small as the other. So if your child is in need of help and a stranger offers it, teach them to refuse and instead to pick someone else at random.


When faced with a would-be kidnapper or mugger, our first response is often to give in to their demands thinking it will appease them enough to keep us safe (perhaps because we've been trained since birth to obey authority figures). As was suggested by the fascinating and famous Milgram experiment, most of us instinctively follow orders from authority figures even when those orders conflict with our conscience.

But your best chance to save yourself from a kidnapper (as opposed to someone trying to rob you) may actually lie in the first moment they come upon you. The use of self-protective behaviors by women when assaulted has been shown to be associated with a decrease risk of injury (though studies done previously to this one showed the opposite association, this study was the first to examine the temporal sequencing between injuries and self-protective behaviors).

Little hard data exists to help us be certain of the best strategy to use when facing a potential abduction, but reason would suggest the following: if someone is actually trying to abduct you, by definition, they mean you harm. Any appeal to their better nature by means of your obedience and appeasement results probably more from a misplaced confidence in The Good Guy Contract than it does from a well-reasoned strategy to keep you safe. Once a kidnapper has you away from others, you're totally at his (or her) mercy. The risk of resistance, whether at the outset of the abduction or the moment before you're about to be raped or murdered, remains the same. If he shoots or stabs you while you try to escape at the outset, he was likely going to shoot or stab you in the end anyway. Most assailants aren't prepared for immediate resistance, which increases the likelihood you'll be able to succeed in resisting.

In order to train yourself against your instincts to submit, however, you might think about taking a little time sometime to rehearse in your mind the actions you would want to take if faced with a potential kidnapper, like professional skiers often do before taking a run down a mountain. Whether your resistance takes the form of attempting to escape or of fighting back physically, prepare yourself to respond with anything but obedience.

Given that most of us won't ever experience an attempted kidnapping either of our children our ourselves, it might seem foolish or excessive to even think about this. But both things do happen to people just like you and me. And as one of my old medical school mentors once said to me, life is best navigated in all areas with the 5 P's kept firmly in mind: Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance. Everyone, please stay safe.

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to explore Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

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