How to Talk to Your Kids About Strangers

Teaching your kids about the dangers of strangers can be overwhelming and frightening for both you and your children. But using the term "stranger danger" may not be the best way to educate kids, says Pattie Fitzgerald, founder of Safely Ever After. Data shows 90 percent of sexual abuse happens to children by someone they know. Fitzgerald talks with Away We Grow host Diane Mizota and shares her tips on how to protect kids from predators.

Related: Should you discuss kidnapping with your kids?

"Stranger danger really doesn't serve our kids because it's not strangers," says Fitzgerald. She recommends parents use the phrase "tricky people" to describe who children should be aware of because it encompasses people that they know and don't know to varying degrees. "We're basing it not on what somebody looks like, but what they say, what they want to do with a child. And that's how you know it's a trick."

So what signs should your kids look for when they suspect someone is a "tricky person"? Fitzgerald says parents should frame everything in the context of rules: "What's the rule when you're out? What's the rule about your body? So in terms of tricky people, a tricky person is somebody who tries to make you break your safety rules. So when we teach out kids the rules it gives them the dos, the don'ts and they can spot when somebody is tricky. Somebody's trying to break the rules. That's a trick."

Another rule that kids should understand is that that they are the boss of their own body. "They make the rules about who can touch it and who can't touch it," says Fitzgerald. "Another one of the safety rules is to always check first before you go anywhere, before you take something. And if a tricky person tries to get a child to go for a walk or come closer to their car, that 'uh-oh' feeling should go. 'Uh-oh, that's not okay. I'm supposed to check first.'"

If a child can't check first, then the answer is always no. "Predators--tricky people--love to appeal to a child's sense of wanting to help or wanting to be nice. It's one of the oldest tricks in the book," says Fitzgerald. "Safe grownups don't ask kids for help when you're by yourself."

How to talk to your kids about strangersAnother essential rule? No secrets. "As soon as your child hears the word 'secret,' it should be like a car alarm going off in their head. 'Secret! Secret! I gotta tell! We don't do secrets!' You can swap out secret with the word surprise. A surprise is a gift we're hiding under the bed for somebody's birthday, or a party that we're going to. But secret, I don't like that word."

Fitzgerald wants kids--and parents--to trust their intuition, their "uh-oh" feeling. "Our instinct goes off for a reason, we've just gotta listen to it. If we can get them to feel empowered, and know that there's somebody like mom or dad who's got their back, and is on their side, we can really lower the risk and make them feel good about safety, not scared about it."

As part of her research, Fitzgerald interviewed convicted predators to ask about their "trade secrets." She learned that the one thing that would have stopped them from pursuing a child was fear of getting caught. "If they thought they would get caught. If they thought the parents were paying attention," says Fitzgerald, "they would step back. They wouldn't target that child. If they thought the child had enough sense to say, 'Hey! Cut it out! Or, that's my body, or stop touching me,' they would back off. So the one thing that stops them-- the possibility of getting caught."

And parents should look for red flags, too. Says Fitzgerald: "Pay attention to who's paying attention to your kid. If somebody is more interested in spending time with your kid than you are, it's a red flag. [The} Biggest red flag [is] when somebody's working really hard to gain alone time with your child. Just pull back and ask yourself 'why?'"

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