Stranger Danger and Preschool Children

Strengthen children’s confidence and ability to speak for themselves.

Posted Nov 13, 2018

Stranger danger, the slick rhyming phrase that first appeared in the 1960s, is just about perfect for fearmongering.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children tells us that 115 children, mostly teenagers, became victims of stranger abductions last year. The vast majority of the 800,000 children who’d gone missing, even temporarily, were taken by people they knew. It seems we’re pretty mediocre at risk assessment, apparently preferring newsfeed drama to facts. As a friend of your children’s mental health, I worry about how the skewed message that all strangers are to be feared pressures parents, who are already devoted to their children’s safety, into feeling they must prepare their young children, even their preschoolers, to manage in a world where stranger danger headlines books, public service announcements and videos as though it were an inevitable fact of daily life. It isn’t.

Preschoolers are generally uncertain at best in understanding even what a stranger is. ‘Someone you don’t know’ is a common explanation, and it seems simple enough until we start to imply that there is a danger inherent in not knowing. They see their parents talking to strangers all the time. Why aren’t they afraid of the people in line at the convenience store, the movies or the post office? Aren’t they dangerous? They are strangers, right? Stranger danger implies that all the people you do know are safe. We wish it were so.

It’s less useful to focus on managing the highly unlikely, confusing encounter with a stranger than to strengthen children’s sense of self and confidence in their ability to speak for themselves, ask for help when they need it and say ‘no’ when they are scared:

  • Welcome children’s natural discomfort around strangers. Their caution gives them time to see how their parents relate to such people, signaling that these strangers are okay and not bad as much of the fearmongering literature touts. Stranger awareness, a sudden quieting and vigilance on the baby’s face, appears naturally between seven and nine months and is often more curiosity than anxiety - normal indeed;
  • Encourage the sense that children can help be agents in their own safety. One of my favorites is telling your preschoolers to play in a place where they can see you instead of your shadowing them endlessly around their play spaces. Self-control is the aim here, not pushback from helicopter parenting;
  • Investigate another of my favorites if your preschooler seems ready, The Berenstain Bears Learn about Strangers, by Stan Berenstain Jr. is a good conversation helper and engages children as active agents in their own wellbeing. You’ll know soon enough if they are interested; if not, revisit in six months;
  • Teach your kids that there are certain adults whom they don’t already know that can be helpful when they are lost or worried: police, security guards, cashiers and clerks in a store or servers in a restaurant (the ones with the name badges) and the parents of your friends to name a few. Four-year-olds are just about ready for such a conversation. Before then, it’s just confusing and the stuff of nightmares.