Monday, October 22, 2012

Stranger Danger For Toddlers, a much different ballgame

I have been sick to my stomach since last week when they announced that Jessica Ridgeway's body had been positively identified after she was abducted October 5th. She had left for school to meet a friend at a park just down the street from her house and wasn't seen again until her dismembered remains were discovered 6 days later. I add in the detail of what horror obviously befell her, not because it makes the scenario of a child murder any worse because there isn't anything worse, but to convey the type of person we're dealing with here. This is like a sick twisted horror movie and the intensity of what happened literally has me an anxious mess, I cannot stop thinking about what happened to this poor beautiful little girl. This was about 30 minutes from our house, if you think it isn't happening right in your backyard, think again. It is a parent's worst nightmare. Every time I look at my kids over the past week I think of her and it shakes me to the core in fear thinking of it being my own child... They are just SO vulnerable... I want to lock them away in my house and never ever let them out. I want to homeschool forever now, although it wouldn't matter because I will never let them out to get a job, or grow up, or drive, or ANYTHING!

My heart just aches.

It has brought back a lot of the familiar PPD/PPA feelings, I am an anxious mess. I wake up in the middle of the night to any noise thinking someone has climbed the house and is trying to kidnap my children as they sleep. I make my husband check the locks on the doors, the house alarm, a hundred times and I wake up all night paranoid. The kids went with my brother and sister in law for a few hours yesterday and shortly after they left I stopped dead in my tracks thinking "oh God, what if they turn their backs for 1 minute and something happens because I'm not there". I am terrified of being away from them at any point regardless of who they are with. I see the neighborhood kids running around and playing and I feel a duty to stand there and watch over them and I really want to tell them to go home and stay inside.

This kind of tragedy is paralyzing for parents especially.

I have tried to think through it logically and stop myself from being so over the top but I just keep thinking that my kids aren't safe without me around, but someday I wont be around so then what. Of course I've thought about the whole "stranger danger" talk, it's one of those things you will obviously have some day, but I can't say I expected to have to do it now. Afterall, how the heck would you even explain that to a 2 year old, or to my 16 month old who can't even really make a sentence yet???

They are the most friendly little dudes which I love, always smiling and engaging, they will chat up a tree. I want to teach them to be safe without ruining their innocence, without making them fearful of everyone or being too afraid to ask for help from a stranger if they need it. It's a hard line to walk... but as we can see with this latest tragedy you can't wait, these horrible people are all around us, we have to start protecting our kids NOW.

So I've made it my mission to have this talk, now. And to emphasize it in any way I can think of that will make sense to a toddler, if anyone has done this or has some tips on how to go about it please chime in. I will start with the older one because I think he will be able to comprehend it a little bit, as for the wee one, I will try this once he is a bit older.

I did a lot of reading about this, what others have tried and decided on our own way to go about it. I emphasize this is what we decided to do, if you choose a different way or disagree with our method that is fine, have your own discussion with your kids whatever it is make sure you TALK to them about it, don't wait. I will also point out that this is geared towards toddlers (3 and under, granted my almost 3 year old is pretty mature for his age) who have a much different capacity to comprehend things than even a 5 year old.

What I found was that there is plenty of information on how to teach school aged kids about safety, they  have reasoning skills, they can notice when something seems out of the ordinary, they notice if a random car is suddenly following them, they can sense suspicion from an unfamiliar person.... a toddler can't do this. A toddler needs YOU to do this for them until they develop these skills, but we don't live in a perfect world, and sometimes you can't always be there.

I found the post over at Checklist Mommy very informative, it was compiled from a lecture on Safely Ever After and had some great points that I hadn't thought of. The following excerpt is the basis for a lot of what we went over on our Stranger lessons and touches not only on kidnapping but also molestation and child abuse.

  • It is unlikely your kid is going to be abused by a weirdo at the park (huge sigh of relief).
  • That said, if there is a weirdo at the park, he’s not going to fit the “stranger” model — so stop teaching your kid about strangers! He’s going to come up to your kid and introduce himself. Voila! He ain’t a stranger anymore.
  • Teach your kids about TRICKY PEOPLE, instead. TRICKY PEOPLE are grown-ups who ASK KIDS FOR HELP (no adult needs to ask a kid for help) or TELLS KIDS TO KEEP A SECRET FROM THEIR PARENTS (including, IT’S OKAY TO COME OVER HERE BEHIND THIS TREE WITHOUT ASKING MOM FIRST. Not asking Mom is tantamount to KEEPING A SECRET.)
  • Teach your kids not to DO ANYTHING, or GO ANYWHERE, with ANY ADULTS AT ALL, unless they can ask for your permission first.
See how I said ANY ADULTS AT ALL? That’s because:

  • It’s far more likely your kid is going to be abused by someone they have a relationship with, because most cases of abuse follow long periods of grooming — both of the kid and his or her family.
  • Bad guys groom you and your kids to gauge whether or not you’re paying attention to what they’re doing, and/or to lure you into dropping your guard. Don’t. Kids who bad guys think are flying under their parents’ radars, or kids who seem a little insecure or disconnected from their parents, are the kids who are most at risk.
We spent a few days of homeschool lessons on Strangers so that we could cover all of the info I wanted him to know and make sure that he was really taking it in and remembering it.

The areas I wanted to touch on were-
Strangers out in the world
Strangers who come to the door at home
Strangers in a store/mall

We started out by talking about how there are lots of "strangers" in the world, people we don't know. Sometimes people are nice but sometimes these people want to do bad things to us so we have to be very careful around people that we don't know. I let him sit and think about that for a minute and see what he had to say.

I told him that sometimes these bad people want to take kids away from us and that this is a scary thing because we don't ever want him to be taken away, we want to have him forever. I went over the common ideas of people using puppies or candy to try and get us to come with them, but I told him that there were lots of ways that these bad people try to get kids away from mommy and daddy.

And lastly I told him that in order to be safe with strangers there were some rules we had to follow.

1. NEVER ever go anywhere with any stranger, adult or child, without asking Mom or Dad first.
If we're at the park and a kid wants you to come play with a ball across the field you must ask Mom and Dad first. If a stranger offers you candy, you ask mom and dad first. A stranger wants you to find their puppy, ask mom and dad first, I went through a variety of scenarios that would apply to our daily life at this age (going to the park, grocery store, parking lots, etc) and hammered on the point that you MUST ask Mom or Dad first.

2. NEVER get into a car with a stranger, never go into their house, any building, unless you ask mom or dad first.
There is no reason he should ever need to be going to these places with someone he doesn't know so we flat out labeled them off limits. The only caviat is if he needs help which is hard for a toddler to differentiate and complicates the issue. I figured we would make this as black and white as possible for him at this age, these places are a NO NO NO. We would cover the issue of asking for help in the next lesson.

3. If you get lost and can't find mommy or daddy, you find a Mom with kids to ask for help.
Tell them you need help, that you are lost, bottom line. If there are no moms you find a woman. (I wont get into the issues of asking Dads with kids for help and the whole men vs women stereotype discrimination thing, because that distracts the focus here, keeping kids safe in the offchance that they become vulnerable. If you want to teach your kid otherwise that is your decision).

4. Do not EVER run off away from Mom and Dad. Bad people can grab you in just a second.
We had an incident with the grandparents a few weeks ago at the mall where he took off running through the entire mall and my step mom had to shout at a random person to stop him. Obviously toddlers think this is funny and therefore we added this to the rules.

5. If a bad person ever gets a hold of you, to take you away, what do you do? SCREAM, RUN, KICK, FIGHT.
We taught about yelling for help, screaming as loud as possible "help me" "you're NOT my Daddy/Mommy" and also about yelling "fire" because more people are apt to listen to a kid yelling fire rather than ignoring screams and just thinking it's kids playing around.

This covered the basics as simply as I could. I went over a ton of scenarios and we role played what he would do, I was quite surprised at how long it took for him to answer "no" when I prompted him to come get candy or find my puppy or come play. When I said these things in a fun playful voice he was all ready to go, eyes beaming! I thought after our talk that he would've at least paused but he didn't, which tells me that this is something we will have to practice practice practice!

We will continue to quiz him about the "rules" and pose scenarios for him to explain what he would do in that situation to make sure he is remembering this and really getting it as best as a 2 1/2 year old can. I am also considering doing some role playing when we are at the park by asking another mom to try and 'test' him by asking him to go somewhere and see what he does. I think this will be the most effective way for it to really sink in.
Anyone else with experience in teaching toddlers about strangers? What worked for you? I've been putting together several games for homeschool that help emphasize this that I will post in an update.


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