Safety and Street Smarts for Kids

Laura Markham's picture

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Every parent's nightmare is that phone call telling them that something has happened to their child. Rest assured that despite the prominent publicity that accompanies tragedies, they are rare. And even more encouraging, experts say that most abuse cases, abductions, and even accidents involving children can be prevented if parents and children know what to do to avoid them.

Here are a dozen things every parent can do to keep their child safe.

1. Prioritize your kids. Eat dinner with your kids at least five nights out of seven. Make sure you have one on one time with each child every day, even for a few minutes. Plan special time with each child every week. The best way to keep your kids from using drugs and being abused by predators is to maintain close relationships with them.

2. Every child should know how to SWIM. Be sure your child knows NEVER to dive into water that she has not already established to be deep and safe.

3. If your child is impulsive, intervene early to help him learn to manage this trait. Daredevil behavior is bad enough in a six-year-old, but in a sixteen-year-old it can be deadly. Car accidents are the leading cause of death among teens; other accidents caused by lack of judgment and impulsivity are not insignificant.

4. Cars are dangerous. Train your child to buckle up. Teach her to get out of any car immediately if the driver is drunk. Discuss with her what she can say to get out of the car and to a safe place. ("I'm carsick!") Make sure that she knows she can always call you for a ride regardless of the situation. Once she starts driving, make sure she hears any personal stories you have about kids who've died in car accidents; that story could keep her alive.

5. Teach good judgment. The best way to keep your children out of violent situations is to teach them good judgment and supervise them adequately. Know the households where your child spends time. Teach your children to leave any room and house immediately if a gun appears -- loaded or not. ("Oops, I just remembered I have a dentist appointment!") Guns don't give second chances.

6. Be sure you know the parents when your child goes to someone's house on a playdate,. Talk to him about what goes on at his friend's houses. Would he be able to recognize if his friend's mother was drunk? Would he know what to do if his friend's father touched him inappropriately?

7. Build high self esteem and strong relationships. The best way to keep children from being bullied is to make sure they have high self esteem and strong relationships at home and with peers. Bullies prey on children whom they perceive to be vulnerable, including needy children who are so desperate for peer acceptance that they continue to hang around a group of peers even when one of the group leaders begins to mistreat them. Roleplay with your child how he can stand up to a bully by saying that he will not let anyone abuse or intimidate him, and then waking away. Kids need to be reassured that there is no shame in being frightened by a bully, in walking away, or in telling an adult and asking for help. Bullying situations can escalate, and saving face is less important than saving their life.

8. Teach your child that most people are okay, but there are a few people out there who do bad things, and could hurt her. She needs to be told explicitly that it is more important to stay safe and to trust herself than to be polite. It is okay for her to question, disobey, and even run away from someone whose behavior is making her acutely uncomfortable. Predators give signals; your child just needs your support to trust herself in reading them. Teach your child what constitutes improper behavior on the part of an adult, for instance, that it is inappropriate for adult strangers to offer children treats or to ask them for directions, and their reaction should be to walk away.

9. Teach your child that adults should never touch children in ways that make them uncomfortable, or ask them to keep secrets. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, someone the child knows and trusts usually perpetrates child molestations. Children are routinely told to stay away from strangers, but they need to understand what inappropriate behavior is from someone they know and trust. Never force your child to be touched by a relative or friend if she doesn't want contact. She must be respectful, and you can ask her to blow Grandpa a kiss instead of giving a hug, but she's in charge of her own body.

10. Listen to your kids and respond to their needs. "Every time you respond to your child's cry of hunger or pain or discomfort, you raise a child who knows he will be heard," say safety experts Ric Bentz and Christine Allison (who by the way have a great book on this topic). Make sure your child knows he can tell you anything, and you will love him no matter what he's done.

11. Don't assume only girls are sexually molested. The statistics are that one out of every three girls will have suffered some unwanted sexual touching by the time she is sixteen. But the figures for boys are almost as bad: one out of five.

12. Don't leave your child with anyone, even your boyfriend, unless you completely trust him. The good and bad news about abuse is that most of it, statistically, is not perpetrated by strangers. It happens at the hands of family members or the mother's boyfriend. Almost all the rest is perpetrated by trusted intimates such as coaches, religious leaders or teachers. Bad news? Yes, these are people your child trusts. But it's good news because it's a risk you can usually avoid, if you trust your instincts and pay attention to your child.
Dr. Laura Markham