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Stranger danger?

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With the parade sounds of blaring horns and beating drums marching off into the distance, Angie Worth, along with her newborn daughter Ella, her 2-year-old son Todd, and her elderly grandmother, began to head back to the car. The exciting morning turned into panicked chaos when Worth lost sight of her energetic toddler.

“Todd took off running into the crowd and was out of my sight in just a few seconds,” says Worth. “I started yelling his name and running in the general direction of where I thought he might be.” Just as she was about to call the police, Todd reappeared. “I was so relieved and shaken at the same time,” recalls worth.

The idea of losing a child and not knowing what happened to him is every parent’s worst nightmare. Although abduction by strangers is statistically rare, the media sensationalism of such events makes the ordeal seem all the more likely.

Chances are, though, your child may need to seek help from a stranger at some point, which leaves many parents scratching their heads: Who should your child approach for help, and how much information should your child give? And what about those people who your family only “sort-of” knows?

Define ‘stranger’

Beth Wegner, a community crime prevention specialist, facilitates safety workshops with parents and children. She tells kids, “Strangers can be nice. They may have toys or pets, but strangers are people you do not know.”

In general, Wegner says, it’s easiest to teach very young kids not to talk to strangers at all.

“For the older children, we can go into more detail, and usually through questions, flesh out what a dangerous stranger is,” she says.

Most importantly, if someone makes your child feel uncomfortable and won’t leave her alone, she should yell “Stranger!” and run and tell a trusted adult.

Practice ‘what-if’ scenarios

Use visits to large stores, shopping malls, or the zoo as opportunities to educate your children about what to do if you should become separated from each other. Agree on an easy-to-find meeting spot.

Debby Helmer, a former nanny and school teacher, says she began pointing out cash registers at various stores to her son Alex, age 7, when he was 3 years old.

“I have found that the cash registers are easier to find than customer service. And I tell my kids to only talk to the cashier,” she says. Most of all, assure your child that you will never leave a place without him.

Are there safe strangers? Wegner doesn’t advocate ever talking to strangers.

“With impersonators out there, including women with children, the safe stranger concept is a slippery slope,” Wegner says.

Err on the side of caution if you point out strangers your children could seek help from. In a store, for example, make sure they notice a store employee’s actual uniform, including distinctive name tags or badges, and not just the colors employees wear. Also, instruct them to only talk to employees in an area where other people are around.

Safe-keep DNA samples

What do your child’s old toothbrushes, baby teeth and hairbrushes have in common? These items can serve as DNA samples to help find a missing child. Seal your child’s old toothbrush in a plastic bag, labeled with the date and your child’s name, in the freezer. Save your child’s baby teeth in a labeled film canister in the freezer. Collect hair with the root still attached from your child’s hairbrush and save it in an envelope labeled with your child’s name.

Share limited information

Car rides provide a good time to practice going over your child’s name, address, and phone number. Turning it into a sing-song jingle also helps him memorize all those numbers. If your child does seek help from a stranger, however, his first name and his parents’ first and last names should suffice, says Wegner.

Take pictures

Helmer suggests nonchalantly taking your kids’ pictures with your cellphone when you arrive at a busy public place. Not only will you have yet another adorable picture of their smiling mugs to text to your family and friends, you’ll also have a current picture of your children to share right away with authorities should the unthinkable occur. And you won’t have to rack your already panicked brain about what clothes they wore that day.

Avoid advertising your child’s name

When a kid’s name is on the back of his coat or backpack, predators can use your child’s name as a way to strike up a conversation.

Emergency contacts

Have a couple of “in case of emergency” friends on call, just in case. The schools typically ask families to designate a few emergency contacts who have permission to pick children up from school in the event of an emergency. Have a similar carte-blanche policy in your family and make sure your kids know who the designated safe people are.

Tell them who they may NOT go with

It’s difficult enough to have someone untrustworthy in your family, but if you do not want that person to pick up your children in case of an emergency, then the children need to know that they should stay put until one of their “safe people” arrives. Remind your kids that their safety is, “more important than anyone’s embarrassment, inconvenience, or offense,” says Jennifer Blackwood, a certified Kid Power instructor, who teaches children safety skills and self-defense.

Have a secret family password

If someone asks your child to go somewhere with him, your child can say that her mom and dad only allows her to go with someone who knows the password. Explain to your child that even if the person is insistent that he has your permission, you would never give anyone permission to take her anywhere without her knowing ahead of time. And, if it’s a real emergency, the person you’ve put in charge will know the family password.

Teach facts, not fear

Empowering a child with the skills to protect herself, like never approaching a stranger’s car, builds confidence.

“Just as you would teach manners or crossing the street, weave personal safety skills into daily life in a very matter of fact way,” Blackwood says.

For more child safety tips, check out www.McGruff.org, www.safekids.org, www.ncpc.org, www.missingkids.com, and your local police department.

Freelance journalist Christa Melnyk Hines and her husband are the parents of two boys. She is the author of “Confidently Connected: A Mom’s Guide to a Satisfying Social Life.”

Updated 5:28 pm, December 9, 2016
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