Q: What’s the right age to start teaching kids not to trust every adult? And what’s the best way to do this?
A: Keeping your child safe is one of the most essential aspects of being a parent. How and when do children learn about safety? How do we balance teaching them about safety without overwhelming them and making them afraid of the world?
It’s important to keep age and developmental level in mind. Infants, toddlers and preschoolers are completely dependent on their parents and caregivers to keep them safe. They are too young to be responsible for determining who is safe, but they are learning.
Young children learn about safety from their parent’s words and actions, and they also learn from their parent’s reactions. Because young children are so tuned in to their parents’ feelings and reactions, it’s worth reflecting on your own sense of safety and security in the world and how you might be projecting those feelings.
Children start learning about safety and strangers through early relationships with their caregivers. Babies under the age of 6 months are beginning to differentiate between their primary caregivers, familiar people and unfamiliar people. As they reach the developmental stage that occurs between 6 and 12 months, children learn to differentiate their parents from familiar people and unfamiliar people. Babies of this age look to their parents to help determine who is “safe” and they may show hesitation, wariness and upset with less familiar people.
As babies grow into toddlers and preschoolers, we can help them learn about safety by emphasizing who their go-to person is in any situation, including childcare and school. Around age 3 or 4, young children have a clearer and emerging concept of strangers and are in the process of learning many rules about safety. They still aren’t ready to take on the responsibility of keeping themselves safe, and they require caregiver supervision in places where they could potentially come into contact with unsafe people.
Here are some tips to keep in mind:
• Explicitly tell your child who their trusted adult is in every situation. Clearly tell them to whom they should turn when they need help in any situation. Identify trusted adults/go-to people: “Your teacher Ms. Gina is taking care of you at school today. She and Ms. Kathy can help you if you need help.” Also, talk to children about what to do and who to go to if someone interacts with them in an uncomfortable or unsafe way.
• Keep open communication. Early on, start building the conversation about who is safe and who can help. As children get older and more developmentally capable of protecting themselves, they’ve internalized the safety messages you’ve instilled through both your words and actions to keep them safe. Open communication also includes clear and explicit family rules and expectations for safety in public: stay close to your parent in the store, hold hands in the parking lot, etc.
• Identify authority figures, people who can help. We don’t want to only focus on strangers as scary. Not all strangers are scary, and sometimes we need help. We want to protect children from strangers, and at the same time, we want children to know that there are times they may need help from someone they don’t know, such as a police officer, teacher, doctor, etc.
• Give children ownership over their own bodies. Give children alternatives to physical contact. It may feel impolite or disappointing when children don’t show affection to others when we think they should, but honoring a child’s comfort level teaches them to tune in to and trust their own feelings. Don’t force your child to engage in physical contact or affection; help them learn that their body is their own and it’s OK to not want to hug someone.
Other options, depending on the situation, may include shaking hands or a high-five, waving or blowing kisses. And there may be situations where the child does not feel comfortable or able to give any kind of a greeting to another person.
Teaching safety and boundaries is a big part of parenting, and we want to find balance so that children don’t become overly fearful of the world. The healthiest outcome for children is to grow up feeling safe in their important relationships along with confidence and a sense of security in the world.
Birth to Five Helpline
Southwest Human Development provides this free resource for anyone — parents, grandparents, caregivers and even medical professionals — with questions or concerns about young children. Compassionate, bilingual early-childhood specialists are available 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Friday. Common topics include: challenging behaviors, potty training, sleep issues, colic or fussiness, feeding and nutrition and overall parenting concerns. 877-705-KIDS (5437) or birthtofivehelpline.org
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