Talking with Toddlers About Strangers
How to introduce the idea of stranger safety to young children
If your child’s personal safety tops your (ever-growing!) list of worries, you’re certainly not alone. As toddlers grow, their tiny worlds begin to expand—and often that means beyond your actual grasp. Child care, play dates, outings with relatives … it’s no wonder instilling a sense of caution in your children is such a high priority! But how can you do this without making them overly fearful?
Teaching personal safety to your child is a lifelong process based on open communication, and it goes way beyond the traditional teachings of “stranger danger”. Here are a few tips to think about with your young toddler.
What They Understand
Young toddlers do not understand the concept of a stranger. In fact, even older children can become confused by this concept if someone they don’t know is warm and friendly. Children will often think of a stranger only as someone who is mean and scary.
Between 12 and 24 months, your child does recognize the adults in her normal routines: you, her caregivers, and relatives and family friends who visit regularly. At this age, your child has developed an attachment hierarchy to people in her world. Depending on her temperament, your child may be cautious with people she doesn’t have these attachments to. But a more outgoing child may be just as approachable by and comfortable with people whom she’s just met.
As your child enters the preschool years, he will be able to have conversations with you about safety: why not to go anywhere with a stranger and how to say no when something or someone makes him uncomfortable. At that age, it will also be important to support your child’s intuitive sense when a situation feels uneasy, and let him know it is OK to act on those feelings. Until he has the vocabulary for that, though, your job is to model safety by being vocal around strangers about which interactions are acceptable with your child.
What to Say and Do
Think about it: Your child relies on you and the other caregivers in his life to keep him safe. From setting swing-set guidelines to adjusting bath water temperature, enforcing sweater-wearing rules to judging when it’s safe to cross, the responsibility for safety during the toddler years lies solely with the adults. So when it comes to personal safety, it’s no wonder your child looks to you to show—and right now, not just tell—them which individuals are “safe.”
Here’s what to say in (and how to navigate through) some everyday situations. Remember: You know your child best, and your parental intuition will be very important in these scenarios.
At the mall, a person at the food court offers your child a lollipop.
Say: “Please do not offer my child candy, she doesn’t know who you are.”
Consider: Rather than correcting your child for taking the goodie (what kid doesn’t want a lollipop?), your focus on the adult reinforces the rule without punishing your child for their predictable interest in the candy.
But … If the receptionist at your child’s pediatrician’s office offers the candy bowl after a visit, let her take it without comment. It’s OK to say once you’re in the car, “We can take candy from Marlene because we know her and she always gives kids treats when they go to the doctor. We trust her.”
Your college roommate wants a hug at the end of her first visit with your family, but your toddler appears nervous and pulls away.
Say: “She doesn’t want a hug right now. It’s OK for her to say she doesn’t want one.”
Consider: This begins to teach your toddler about personal boundaries, and that she’s permitted to say no to anything that makes her feel uncomfortable—even if it comes from relatives or people she knows.
But … When a costumed character approaches your child for a hug at an amusement park (if your child isn’t scared off!), there’s little harm in allowing it with your supervision. Your child can’t understand that that Spongebob isn’t really the man himself—and explaining it would be beside the point at the time.
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