Protecting Against Child Predators

Man in car waving to apprehensive girl standing in the street

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As unpleasant and frightening as it may be for parents to think about the possibility of their child being hurt by a predator, it’s crucial that parents talk with their kids about personal safety. Teaching your children how to protect themselves against child predators is as important as other measures you use every day to keep them safe, such as making sure they use a seat belt.

By teaching your children how to avoid possible dangers and what to do if they find themselves in a potentially threatening situation, you will empower them to know what to do in the event you are not there to protect them.

Important Tips 

Teach Your Child the Power of "No"

Child predators are very good at seeking out children who may be afraid or reluctant to oppose an adult, or who may be easily threatened or coerced. Tell your child to trust their instincts if they do not feel comfortable or are scared around someone, to tell that person in a very loud voice, "No!" if they are asked to keep a secret or go somewhere with that person without you, and to tell you immediately about what happened.

Tell Your Child What to Do

Don’t assume your child will know what to do. In his book "Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane)," security consultant Gavin de Becker mentions a classic segment of The Oprah Winfrey Show that aired in 1993.

In the show, Oprah producers and child safety advocate Ken Wooden conducted an experiment (with the parents’ permission) in which they were able to successfully lure away every single child participating in the test out of the playground in an average of 35 seconds.

Before the experiment, the parents had insisted that their child would not talk to a stranger or leave the park with someone they didn’t know. Needless to say, they were wrong to assume that their child would not be vulnerable.

Don’t Focus on "Stranger Danger"

For children, especially younger kids, the concept of just who exactly is a "stranger" can be confusing. They may picture someone who is scary-looking, or who is mean. In fact, child safety experts have shown in experiments such as the one mentioned above that children will often follow someone if that person appears friendly and is persuasive enough (by asking a child to help them find a lost puppy, for instance).

Moreover, as de Becker notes in "Protecting the Gift," by telling a child to not trust strangers, parents are implicitly saying that it’s OK to trust people they may know casually, such as a neighbor or a waiter at a restaurant.

Singling out strangers as dangerous does not address the fact that dangers to children are greater from someone known to them or you than by a stranger, notes Nancy McBride, National Safety Director at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

Instead of telling your child not to ever talk to strangers, which may, in fact, deter them from seeking help if they are lost, teach them to find a woman—preferably one who is with a child—and ask them to call 911 or call their parents. Other options: "Tell your child to go to a sales clerk with a name tag, uniformed law enforcement officer, or a person at an information booth," says McBride.

And if you see a child who appears to be lost? NCMEC produced a piece called, "What Should You Do If You See a Child Who Appears To Be Lost?" to help people know what to do if they encounter a child who seems to be in need of assistance finding their parents or caregiver.

Teach Them About Boundaries

Tell your child that no one should ever invade their personal space. Whether in a public space or at home, emphasize to your child that no one should ever get too close to them without a caregiver or one of their parents present.

Designate Trusted Adults

Make a short list of "safe" grown-ups—such as an uncle, babysitter, grandparent or neighbor—who are allowed to pick your child up from school or take care of them when you are not there or are late for pick up. Tell them to never go with anyone else unless you have agreed beforehand to deviate from the list, and always make sure they know exactly who will be picking them up.

Explain What to Never Do

Tell them to never, ever get in a car or go somewhere without a parent or caregiver. Emphasize to your child that if someone they know (but who is not a designated trusted adult) or someone they have never met before tries to convince or force them to go somewhere, then they should scream as loudly as they can, "Help! This is not my dad!" or "Help! This is not my mom!" Tell them that they should also run, and if they are grabbed, that they should punch, hit and kick as strongly as they can.

Don’t Instill Fear

Just turning on the evening news is enough to make children—and adults—feel as if there’s danger lurking in every corner. Fear of every situation can actually be counter-productive and can make a child so afraid of everything that they are vulnerable to being manipulated by threats.

Instead, give your child the confidence, strength, and tools to prevent and manage potential danger. Rather than focusing on every danger your child could face, empower your child by talking to them about how they would recognize and avoid potentially dangerous situations and handle unexpected scenarios.

For instance, what would they do if they were accidentally separated from you in a public place? (Answer: Look for a woman with a child or baby and ask for help.) Or what’s the best way to handle it when someone they know—say, a neighbor or a friend of the family—asks your child to come with them, claiming that you sent them to get your child in an emergency?

(Answer: Know that only designated trusted adults previously named by you—such as a grandparent or another relative—and no one else is allowed to come and get them.)

Use Resources for Kids

Watch videos such as The Safe SideStranger Safety: Hot Tips to Keep Cool Kids Safe With People They Don't Know and Kinda Know, featuring John Walsh, with your child. The Safe Side website also features resources designed for kids such as quizzes, puzzles, and safety tips.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) also has a wealth of free child safety resources for parents, guardians, and children at

Repeat These Messages

Just as you would with fire drills, practice these safety tips periodically with your child. (Do this especially right at back-to-school time and at the beginning of summer, when your kids are likely to be outside more—a fact that is all too well known to predators).

When you are outside in a crowded place such as a mall or a park, ask your child what they would do if you were to be separated. Which of the people around you would they go to for help? Point out some of the people who could assist them. Do they remember your cell phone number?

A Word From Verywell

For most parents, thinking about predators and child abduction can be anxiety-provoking, so the thought of even having this conversation with your kids can wreak havoc on your nerves.

However, having these conversations early and during important times in your child's life are extremely important. If you are equipped and are able to create a safe environment to speak about these topics, you can help protect your children from avoidable danger.

By Katherine Lee
Katherine Lee is a parenting writer and a former editor at Parenting and Working Mother magazines.