How to teach your kids to be safe without scaring them 

by Susan Symondson
How to teach your kids to be safe without scaring them
Reading Time: 5 minutes

In South Africa, a country with a massive crime problem, how do we teach children about potential risks and keeping safe without creating additional, unnecessary anxiety? By Susan Symondson.

Give them tools

It’s important for parents to explain safety concepts to their kids without freaking them out with horror stories. Providing your child with tools that empower and increase confidence is a good place to start. Dr Giada Del Fabbro (MA Clinical Psychology, MSc Forensic Psychology, PhD) says, “Each child is different, with varying language and cognitive ability. Age is not the indicator but rather readiness.”

It’s important not to let fear dictate your parenting decisions. Educational psychologist Lauren Salmon reminded me that children are born with an innate curiosity and are eager to explore and understand the world. Encouraging this desire to learn and teaching them how to keep themselves safe in their explorations is vital. Fun and creative educational activities such as songs, games and books can be part of this journey. “ Puppets are a great way of creating dialogue and playing out various scenarios. Try using well-known stories, like Little Red Riding Hood. Creative fantasy play can be informative. Tap into things like scarves, boxes, lego, keys, locks, plugs, and cars  to open up discussions on safety,” advises Lauren.

Establish guidelines, plans and rules

Many parents would list kidnapping or abduction as their primary concern. The fear of “stranger danger”  can be a powerful motivator for parents. It is often reinforced by media coverage of high-profile cases of child abduction or exploitation by strangers. This fear can lead parents to take measures such as limiting their child’s independence, monitoring their activities closely, or avoiding certain activities or locations altogether. The truth is also that it’s not only strangers that perpetrate crimes against kids. In the case of child rape, it’s mostly men that are known to the children. 

Therefore, take care when applying labels. “Stranger danger”, for example. This concept teaches children that strangers are dangerous and family members are safe to be with.

However, studies have shown that children are at a greater risk of harm from family members, friends, or acquaintances than strangers. Most child abductions and abuse cases are perpetrated by someone the child knows rather than a stranger.

Giada reinforces that clear and concise procedures need to be established. “The most important rule would be around going off with adults who have not been identified by the parents as acceptable figures. Keep it simple. Develop a protocol for how they can protect themselves if someone who is not on this list tries to engage them,”she explains.

Try some scenario planning: we all know not everything goes according to plan, especially when taking a curious child into a new and exciting context. Scenario plans can be discussed with your child, for example, talk about what they would do if they get lost at the shops. Introduce your child to simple strategies like using their voice, hand signals, or panic buttons if they feel unsafe.

Consider self-defence lessons

Self-defence training can help children develop confidence and the skills to protect themselves if ever threatened or physically attacked. However, it is essential to remember that self-defence should be seen as a last resort and that children should always try to avoid dangerous situations whenever possible.

Anthony Segal, a certified Black Belt from the elite Israeli defence academy IDefend Krav Maga agrees. “Many children are unaware of what dangerous situations are, and so they cannot avoid them. Immaturity and naivete can result in a lack of overall situational awareness and hence a shortfall in safe behaviour,” he says.

When considering making your child familiar with personal protection tactics, Anthony recommends that a good starting age would be from about seven years of age. The IDefend Krav Maga system assists with muscle development, learning how to problem solve, becoming more aware of surroundings and building self-confidence at an early stage. These skills complement the general education path of kids.

Anthony shared that one of his students, a female high school student who had trained with his academy for a few years, could call on her physical training to avoid a potential sexual assault at a social function. He attests to many instances of his students avoiding potentially dangerous situations using the techniques learnt under his guidance, mainly by using their communication skills and confidence to stand up for themselves and or others to de-escalate situations.

Consent is key

Both Giada and Lauren highlighted the guidelines on body privacy and personal space. Teach the importance of consent. Children need to know that they are allowed to make their own decisions about their bodies from an early age. No one should make them feel uncomfortable – no adult, child or parent. Children should instead learn to trust their instincts. When they start to feel fearful in a particular situation, they need to understand that something isn’t right. In these instances, children need to be taught how to assert themselves.

It is vital to keep communication open and to encourage your child to ask questions and share concerns. This can help them feel empowered and confident regarding their safety. Staying engaged and checking in daily in a non-intrusive way is a must. Giada flags that the parent’s attitude will influence the child’s anxiety. “So, if the parent is quite neutral and just curious about asking the question, the child will experience it this way,” she suggests.  Questions should be open-ended rather than directed and probing – for example, “What made you proud of yourself today” or “Who made you smile today?”

Encourage independence

While parents need to take reasonable precautions to protect their children from “stranger danger”, it is also important to encourage children to be independent and teach them how to identify and respond to other safety scenarios.

It’s never too early to teach children basic first-aid skills, giving them confidence in emergencies. Charlene Van Tonder owns Safe Kids (CPR and First Aid Training) and is passionate about empowering people with basic skills that could make a difference.

Charlene says that the appropriate age to start first-aid training depends on the child’s maturity and level of understanding. However, children as young as five can begin learning simple first aid techniques, such as how to call for emergency services, apply a bandage, and recognise common injuries such as cuts, bruises, and burns.

As children get older, they can learn more advanced skills, such as CPR and how to administer basic first aid for choking, allergic reactions, and other emergencies. 8 or 9-year-olds can learn simple skills, such as performing CPR, how to call for help and recognising and managing basic emergencies.

Connect and communicate

Parents’ concerns about their children’s safety can vary depending on various factors, including personal experiences, cultural norms, and media influences. Lauren adds, “The word ‘safety’ serves as an umbrella term for all the different and important life skills that children need to learn and experience to successfully navigate their way through life.”

While “stranger danger” is undoubtedly a common concern among parents, this fear may not always be grounded in reality. You and your kids can feel more in control by developing the confidence to handle and manage difficult situations with a multi-discipline approach – including teaching your child to trust their instincts and stand up for themselves, the importance of consent; how to call for help; self-defence smarts for situational awareness and understanding of when to engage or disengage from any situation and basic emergency medical skills.

Prioritise daily connections with your child. Communication is key to discovering what they enjoy and what makes them uncomfortable. Use these critical teachable moments to assist in keeping your child safe. If talking makes them feel awkward or anxious,  allow the discussion to evolve at a comfortable pace. Sometimes it may make sense to acknowledge their feelings and return to the conversation later. On the other hand, they may need more time to process what took place before being able to discuss it with you. At all times, your child needs to feel ‘heard’, connected and safe.

Watch out for our upcoming article on keeping your kids safe online!

Read more here on teaching your kids road safety 
Read more here on water safety 
Read more here on car safety 
Read 7 safety tips to teach your child

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