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Parents & Educators

What to Teach Children about Strangers

To have a child go missing is a parent's worst nightmare. The threat of abduction by a stranger is minimal when compared with other possible reasons for a disappearance.

In 2014, there were 41,342 missing children cases in Canada. Only 27 (far less than one percent) involved kidnappings; in most of those cases the kidnapper was a relative, friend, a person known to the family. There were 430 cases of children wandering off, and 122 cases of abductions by a parent. Almost 80 percent of cases were runaways. Teens aged 14 - 15 accounted for 43 percent of missing children reports. Sixty-five percent of missing children were found within 24 hours, while 87 percent were found within a week.

These statistics cast doubt on the idea that children should never talk to strangers. When it comes to the relatively low risk of abduction and kidnapping, children are by and large taken away by people they know. This implies they need a sense of who to trust. Wandering off is more common — but a lost child may have to call upon a stranger for help, and must develop the ability to judge what kind of people to approach.

The "never talk to strangers" rule does not protect children in the situations they are most likely to face. On top of this, it can be confusing. Adults do not model the behaviour; they often talk to strangers. A child may not know how to define who is a stranger, and who is not. If strangers are dangerous, then they must look unpleasant.  On the other hand, a friendly, attractive person must be okay. Even though the opposite may be true, that is how a child's mind may work.

What Parents Can Do

For young children, nothing replaces close supervision. Preschoolers do not understand risk and tend to act on impulse.

Children need to develop habits and attitudes that will protect them from the real threats and dangers they may face.

What to do if they are lost or in danger - They should stay put (or in hazardous conditions, find the nearest safe spot), try to attract attention, and wait for a rescuer.

Where they live - Once children are in school, have them memorize their name, address and phone number in case they become separated from the family.

When someone makes them feel uncomfortable - Whether it's someone they know or not, children should be taught to trust their instincts and to seek out an adult in whom they can confide.

Who to ask for help if they get lost - For example, a uniformed officer, store or restaurant staff, information booth or mother with children.

How to respond to situations - Parents should practise "what if" scenarios with their children. Such as if they get lost in a mall, they are approached by a stranger at the park, or if they are offered a ride with a stranger. Many families use passwords; children ask anyone picking them up for the password.