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Teaching Children Stranger Awareness and Easing Parent Anxiety

I was sitting at a table at a favorite local brewery, enjoying a beer, talking with friends, and watching my 2.5-year-old son climb up the stairs and go down the slide over and over again on the playground. It was a beautiful fall day—just the right temperature and the sun was shining. At one point, my son wanted to play with stickers. He came over to me, retrieved a sheet of stickers, and went back to playing on the playground. He then proceeded to share his stickers with the other kids on the playground and the other moms, who were helping their children navigate the stairs and slides. My son was striking up conversations with the kids, the parents, and even occasionally asking for help from the closest mom to get off the slide. Over and over again, other moms comment to me on how sweet and friendly my son is. I take pride in this. I’ve worked hard to teach him that it’s always best to be nice, share, and take turns. His father and I remind him to say “please” and “thank you”, which he often does now without reminding.

This sounds pretty picturesque, right? You would think that I was sitting content and enjoying the situation—weather, friends, drink in hand, and well-behaved kid running his energy out. What parent doesn’t want a friendly kid, quick to share with good manners?

But instead, I sat there filled with anxiety. I can’t tell you what I discussed with my friends and husband that day. My mind was completely occupied with the thought that if I turned my back for one minute, my son would easily walk off with a complete stranger who offered him candy or ice cream or stickers. On another occasion, when I dropped him off for a date night at a local kid’s entertainment venue, he showed shockingly little hesitation in acclimating to the new environment, adults, and children. It didn’t matter that he’d never been there before.

How do I teach my son that it’s not okay to go anywhere with a stranger without talking to Mom or Dad first? More importantly, how do I teach him this without scaring him? Or erasing his innocence? I love that he’s so friendly and willing to share, I’d hate to do anything to ruin that.

I do remember bringing this up to my friends at one point on that day at the brewery. One responded, “Why do you have to teach them stranger danger? Kidnapping is not that common, but maybe my viewpoint will change when I have a kid.” Yes, it may not be extremely common—I may be more likely to get in a car accident—but I also remember several news articles about kidnapping or attempts within the Northern Virginia area in the past year. If this were to happen to me and my son, I struggle to imagine how I could recover from it. So if there’s a chance, and there’s anything I can do to help prevent it, you better believe I’m going to do it.

These questions quickly became an obsession of mine, growing into constant anxiety and worry. It’s something I bring up with my therapist who I am seeing to manage post-partum/pregnancy-related anxiety (On a side note, these sessions have been very helpful. PP Anxiety is a thing just like PP Depression. I encourage you to talk to someone if you think this may affect you). And I mean it when I call it an obsession. It plagued my dreams and distracted me whenever I was in public with my son.

Instead of looking at it and teaching it as “stranger danger”, I chose to pursue a “stranger awareness” tactic. My son is only 2.5 so still pretty young to understand many things. I decided to start by asking my son general questions following interactions with a stranger, usually centered around if he’d take something from them or go somewhere with them. For example, he engages in conversation with the cashier at checkout at the grocery store. Upon leaving, I ask him, “If that lady, the cashier, offered you candy, would you take it?” Not surprising, he usually says yes. My response is simply “I know you like candy and want candy. But remember, we don’t take things from people we don’t know without asking Mommy or Daddy first if it’s ok. We always ask Mommy and Daddy first.” In another case, after playing with the neighbor girl who is about 10, I may ask “Would you go over to her house and play with her?” Again, he usually says yes and I remind him “We don’t go places with other people without asking Mommy or Daddy first.” It doesn’t address the potential “dangerous” aspects, but it starts to reinforce asking our permission in an appropriate way for his age.

We have a long road ahead of us, but it’s a start, and it makes me feel less anxious. And importantly, I’m not crushing his spirit and friendliness in the process. I don’t have all of the answers and am always open to suggestions on how to address these complicated issues. But in case there is anyone else just starting on this path, know you’re not alone, the anxiety is real, and we can do this.