Talking to Young Children about Stranger Safety

Archived Q&A and Reviews


How to talk to 5 year old about a neighbor who's on Meghan's Law list

Feb 2014

Hello BPN Community -

My husband and I are looking for some advice about how to talk to our 5-year old son about a weird neighbor. This neighbor lives a few houses down from us and he is the neighborhood busy body - always walking up and down the street and always in everyone's business. He is in his mid-60s and seems mostly harmless - just annoying. BUT he is listed on the Meghan's Law Sex Offender website - his code is LEWD OR LASCIVIOUS ACTS WITH A CHILD UNDER 14 YEARS OF AGE - I don't know any other details of what or when.

Though this man seems mostly harmless (and frequently helpful – saving us from street sweeping tickets and telling us our headlights are on, etc.), we obviously don't want to take any chances with our son's safety and we're struggling with how to teach our son that it's okay to interact with neighbor A but not neighbor B. We want to impart an appropriate sense of distrust without making him afraid and we want to guide the development of his own instincts. What’s more, we see this man every day – it is impractical to suggest that we just avoid talking to him altogether, and, if possible, we’d like our interactions to remain at least superficially neighborly.

Any advice about how to convey this message would be appreciated.
Wishing he'd just move...

I would just tell your 5-year-old the truth, that your neighbor has been arrested before and so your child should stay away from him because he is a criminal. Maybe more detail about what to do if the guy comes close, or maybe just ''stay away.'' It's up to you on the vibe you get from him. Laura

Personally, I would be suspicious of all the neighbors. It is the ones who have molested children and have not been caught that are most dangerous. Those who are not on the list are most worrisome. Your son should be mistrustful of all of them, and so should you. Most times, a child is molested by those you trust the most. That is how they get access to a child. It is commonly a relative, like an uncle, a cousin or a grandfather. It is much more important that you protect your child from relatives than from strangers.

What exactly is a neighbor going to do? Are you going to allow your child to visit the neighbor alone? No? Then how is he going to do anything? It is those people who see your child alone that you need to be wary of. Be mistrustful of those you trust most. It is a hard lesson to learn, but an important one. I'm sure there are many books written about how to teach your child about appropriate and inappropriate touch, private parts, and so on. Get several of them for yourself and your child and read them. Anon

Don't be fooled by his good acts. He trying to earn your trust. Sure, you don't need to be rude to him unless he's being really obnoxious, but don't let your son near him. Don't even stop to talk to him. Your son will pick up on your cues when you avoid him. You should also tell your son not to talk to that man. I would tell my son that he hurt another child before and he might hurt other children again. Be careful

This man is on the sex offender list? He is a pedophile. That is public information, so presumably other neighbors know too. He is ingratiating himself with families by being ''nice'' so that they will trust him and find him harmless, which he hopes will give him access to children. I don't know what words I would use (I'm sure you'll get some advice), but in no uncertain terms you should protect your son from this man. wouldn't trust him!

Personally, given that this old guy has actually made it to the Megan's Law website I think it's entirely appropriate for you to go all mama bear on him. I would approach him sometime when your kid is not around, and tell him directly that you saw him listed there and that you do not want him communicating with your family in any way. Remember what Malcolm Gladwell has written about predators -- they are expert at convincing parents that they're harmless and often just kooky. They actually count on parents to look the other way. I would totally go proactive on this. Lisa

You should look into KidPower--they offer parent-child classes for your age son, and the classes are super useful for framing conversations about the reality that most threats to children's safety comes from people they know. The main message we brought home from KidPower was ''You have to check'', which means that you NEVER go ANYWHERE with ANYONE unless you've checked with your parents first. So, school field trip? ''I have to get a permission slip from my parent first''. At a friend's house and they decide to bring you with them out for pizza? ''I have to call my parent and check first.'' Favorite friendly neighbor invites the kid over for cookies and to see his new puppies? ''I have to check first''. The other two messages they instill at KidPower is that nothing is ever a secret, and that there are only a very select few people who are allowed to touch the parts of you that are covered by a bathing suit (usually, parents, doctor, but not ALL doctors!) You can give these messages yourself without the help of KidPower, but I definitely recommend the class if you can.

tell your son that although he seems like a nice man, you know that he has a side to him that is not so nice and he is never to be alone with him. It is important that you not scare your son but you also need him to know that he is not just 'weird' but a serious threat. You don't have to over-think this one. anon

Wow, I'm surprised how hard this question is for me. On the one hand, I'm a little disturbed at how you used ''harmless'' twice in a post about somebody on the sex offender list. That detail makes him more than just a weird neighbor. His lack of boundaries/over-familiarity seems to be his modus operandi. This behavior would turn me off without the sex offender label. On the other hand, I don't like labels and pre-judgments. This is a human being and I agree with your not demonizing him or stirring unnecessary gossip.

I'd err on the side of caution though, because the sexual acting out is tied to hormones and I have no idea how the justice system (a certain number of years of punishment) even pretends to solve this problem aside from chemical castration. Then I feel like a monster saying that! But the urges don't go away and I don't think the behaviors do either.

How hard is it to prevent contact between your son and the neighbor? Your child is only 5. I don't think this needs a conversation. Of course, support your son to trust and honor his feelings in all situations. With the guy, you can be as blatant as you need to be privately, adult-to-adult. In front of your son, model a polite but firm boundary, whisk yourselves off in the car. If your son asks, pull the parent card and divert: ''I don't feel comfortable talking to Mr. X... so which park do you want to go to?'' - anon

Make it clear to your child that this neighbor is NOT a friend of yours. Tell your child that only parents are allowed to talk to him. Tell your child -that they do not EVER have to talk to this person -they do not EVER have to help this person (adults should NEVER need help from children e.g please help me find my puppy, kitten etc) I personally would not engage with this guy either - it's not about being polite, it's about being safe. I remember my mother pointing out a neighbor to me when I was around 7years old. She simply told me he was a ''naughty man'' and that I should never speak to him. That message was so loud and clear I still remember it today (many many years later!) Be safe

How to talk to 3.5yr-old about ''Strangers''

Jan 2006

I'm wondering how to talk to my 3.5 yr-old daughter about the ''bad people'' in the world-- kidnappers, intruders, etc. without frightening her. This issue came up because the other day, while her father was talking to an acquaintance on the street, my daughter got tired of waiting for him and ran to our parked car by herself. She rounded the corner and disappeared from his view. It was in the evening, getting dark, and it was not our neighborhood. Her father was understandably quite upset and scolded her about always staying in his view, and the ''strangers'' who could kidnap her, etc. That night, my daughter woke up many times from bad dreams and asked about strangers grabbing you and taking you home, whether our front door was locked, etc. I don't feel this incident was handled in the best way, but then I'm not sure what is the best way to have handled this matter. My daughter is asking questions like, ''Why do we lock the door at night'' and ''Why do I have to stay in your view,'' so I know it's time to talk about the dangers of the world. How do I do it in an age-appropriate way that will not make her feel frightened and insecure? anon

I believe that I am out of the norm, but I don't talk to my kids about stranger danger or being kidnapped. I believe that it would unnecessarily make them fearful of the world. I prefer to encourage being friendly and outgoing. Plus, it is very hard to describe what a stranger is because we are constantly talking to people we don't know (store personnel, friends of friends, people on BART). Stranger danger awareness would not stop someone from kidnapping my child because if someone wanted to, they could simply physically take him. So at this point, they are under constant adult supervision. When they are old enough to bike or walk around the neighborhood alone, that is when I will educate them about stranger danger. I would soft-pedal your responses: staying in your view is so you don't get lost. The answer to locked doors is so people have to knock before they come in. My two cents

Check out Protecting the Gift (sorry, forget the author's name) which is about what to tell kids to protect them, but not scare them. It is a little intense in that it has a lot of stories about things going wrong, but it also is really rational about stranger danger. Lots of good advice about what exactly to say and not to say. I think there may be a website also. anon

I would suggest reading her a book that deals with the theme. We have a Berenstain Bears Book on Strangers. It gives good advice without being too scary. Andrea

When my boys were little the rule was that you never, ever, EVER go anywhere (not even around the corner) without telling the adult in charge. I explained to them that when the adult in charge can't see them it feels scary - just like when they can't see the adult. This totally eliminated the need to scare the bejesus out of them with stories of strangers. If you tell kids not to talk to strangers and then you strike up a conversation with the person in front of you at Safeway, how do you explain? susan

I think it is wonderful that you are being proactive about your child's safety. I strongly recommend the book ''Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane)'' by Gavin DeBecker. De Becker deals quite explicitly and practically with these issues.

It is important to know that your daughter is much, much more likely to be kidnapped or abused by someone she knows than by a stranger (this means, counterintuitively, that her father's acquaintance posed the greatest risk of anyone in the strange neighborhood); also, a terrified child is not one who can make good decisions if she does get lost. At 3.5 years you can simply tell her she needs to stay where you can see here, and that's ''the rule''; if you need an explanation, talk about her general safety from things like falling or getting lost. RE locking the door at night, it could be make sure that people let you know before they come in the house.

Finally, De Becker stresses that you should _not_ tell your child to find a police officer if she gets lost, since small children don't distinguish security guards (who, surprisingly, often have criminal backgrounds) from police. Instead tell her to find a woman and ask her for help. He points out that with near certainty, a woman approached by a child in danger will not rest until that child is safe. -- good luck! another concerned mother

Whatever you end up saying please keep in mind that abuses and kidnaps are mostly done by people you and your child know. m

I HIGHLY recommend that you take a workshop from Kidpower on this very issue! They offer them 2-3 times per year in Berkeley, and the cost is quite minimal. They do a fantastic job of teaching parents how to talk to kids without scaring the daylights out of them. The trainers emphasize that there is no point to creating fear, you want to create confidence and empowerment. They help you learn to teach kids the skills they need to be safe, but without scaring them. For example, when explaining why you want a child to do a certain thing (or not do something), use the smallest reason that the child will consider valid. If the child agrees that it is a valid reason, they will understand and comply, and you will not have terrified them. That is just one of many things they cover - contact them and find out how soon they have a workshop, I can't recommend them enough! Emma

There is a Berenstain Bears book about Strangers that introduces this adequately. You might try that. Deena

There is a ''Safety Class'' offered by Oakland Children's Hospital. The class may be free. It is done over 3 sessions. The first session is with a parent and/ or guardian and the other 2 sessions are with the parent/ guardian and the child. This is a worthwhile class. One of the kids that I take care of is taking the class with his mom. The subject of ''strangers'' does come up and so does appropriate touching even from people we trust and know. (come on, we can't blame ''strangers'' for every bad thing...) Give them a call and find out about the next class time. I think that it is worth it. Rachel

We had a similar problem and we weren't sure what to do about it. Then we ran across a book version of Pinocchio and in it, Stromboli kidnaps Pinochio and puts him in a cage. This presented a great opportunity to explain about why they shouldn't talk to strangers, etc. Now, Stromboli has become a sort of metaphor for dangerous strangers whenever we want to stress the point (i.e. ''You shouldn't run away from Mommy in the store like that because someone like Stromboli could be shopping here too.'') Our child seems to be gradually getting the basic idea and doesn't get frightened by the thought of Stromboli. The movie version of Pinocchio may be scary to a child that young but if you can find the book version, it might be better. ecto

I just happened to receive a Berenstain Bears book about strangers. My almost 4 y.o. likes it. It emphasizes not talking to and especially not accepting gifts or rides from strangers. Sister Bear is bothered by scary dreams too, and learns to be cautious but not fearful. Mara

Hi, Children are very bright, as I'm sure you know. I think the best approach is to be honest with them. They should have some fear of bad strangers, or what you tell them won't ''stick''. However, I can completely understand you not wanting her to have nightmares and such. I recommend being honest, but balancing it with talk about safe people and safe places. This may better help her understand that while there are bad people in the world, there are so many good ones, too. And she doesn't have to feel hopeless if she knows how to take care of herself or be with someone who can take care of her. Anon

I am a marriage, family and child therapist, with a young daughter myself. I believe in being frank about the topic of strangers, but offering information that is age appropriate.

It is important for children to understand boundaries, and what to do if they are approached by someone they don't know. Children are very literal at this age, and will equate strangers as anyone not in their family or group of close friends. The woman behind you in line at Safeway, smiling at your daughter is ''a stranger'', but you don't necessarily want her to become afraid that everyone may be a threat to her safety. You may want to say something like, ''it is very important to stay close to mommy/daddy when we are out. we don't want you to get lost. some strangers are not nice to children. most people are nice, but some people are not, and you cannot tell if they are nice or mean just by looking at them. if we are out at the park or a store and someone smiles or tries to talk to you, it is okay as long as we are right there with you, and we can talk to the person too. if I am not right there, come and get me right away.

The main lesson here, though, is to make sure your child is closely supervised at all times. Some parents have different comfort levels about this,(I am always amazed by the parent who allows their toddler to practically run into the street, half a block ahead of them) but when you have a small child, it literally takes two seconds for them to disappear around a corner and scare the living daylights out of you--so, best to keep them by the hand, in the shopping cart, or if you are in a restaraunt and they want to move about while you are still eating, use the ''keep one hand on the table'' rule, ''you can go anywhere, but you must keep one hand, finger, thumb, touching some part of the table (or chair)''. A small child cannot really be held responsible for wandering off, especially when the adult is responsible for supervising them at all times. If you would expect a high level of supervision from a babysitter, then the parents should maintain the same standard. I know it can be a challenge, but it is sa Better safe than sorry.

Our 3.5 year old was playing downstairs and the doors were locked and we were upstairs getting dressed. I realized it had gotten very quiet and I went downstairs and the door was wide open. I ran outside and she was no where to be seen. You can only imagine my fear. My husband came outside and we went in different directions and I found her on the next street dressed in her halloween costume.

She had been in the midst of thick fantasy play and leaving the house was part of that. Until that point I had no desire to ever reveal to her that there are people who aren't so nice. But after that I thought that a little bit of fear/caution probably wouldn't be such a bad thing. I spoke with my pediatrician later that day who agreed that explaining that there are some bad people and here's how you can stay safe lecture was ok for someone that age (minus grizzly details.)

I realized that I try so hard to make the world a beautiful place for my child so she has no fear. But maybe a little fear helps you want to be safe. Obviously giving them the tools to stay safe is an important empowering component of that. I've noticed now when we are out and she starts to wander I tell her I need to see her at all times and she listens really well, when before she didn't really take me seriously -- probably because she didn't understand why.

She hasn't left the house again -- but I attribute that in large part to the 10 cent eye hook locks we have 6' off the ground on all doors, which I highly recommend to all parents of small children who are tall enough to reach the door handle/lock! This should be part of anyone's childproofing project. I did the same thing that my daughter did at her age and I wasn't found for over 5 hours. just my 10 cents

My husband had a great response to this issue in our family. My mother often took care of my son and would be very fearful about his approaching or saying ''Hi'' to strangers. In an attempt to keep him safe she scared him about strangers and he stopped saying hi to people. My husbands response was that we WANT to encourage our son to have easy going and compotent social manners; introductions, saying hi and introducing himself and his parents IF/WHEN he feels comfortable. What we do is to watch him vigulantly and never let him out of our instant protection and intervention. We feel it is our responsibility to protect him. Relating to that, we never force any interaction (hugging, kissing, talking) that he does not feel comfortable with. We always keep in mind that children are more often molested by known adults.

So here's an example, I took my son to get a hair cut (not at Snippety Crickets) and we had to wait for the lady to get finished with her current client. When she was done she told us she was ready for us. I really wanted my son to get his shaggy hair trimmed but he didn't want to though he had waited patiently and I asked are you sure. Here's the kicker, his intuition was right on. The lady was obviously not in a good mood, seemed like she really didn't care to cut his hair and just seemed irritated. So I talked to my son on the way out and said great decision and talked about how she didn't seem to be too nice right now. That's the type of listening to his inner voice we're trying to promote. Anon

Talking to a 4-year-old about stranger safety

June 2005

Does anyone have advice about how to talk to a very verbal four year old about ''stranger safety''? I have just learned that there have recently been two attempted child abuductions within 3 miles of my home involving a male attempting to entice children into his car. I would like to begin talking with my son about ''stranger danger'' and how to protect himself, but am unsure about how to go about this. I do not want to alarm him unnecessarily (he's very sensitive) but feel it is time to address the issue. Any advice would be welcome!

Some years ago I went to a Kidpower training. They recommended that you tell your child to never go with anyone, stranger or known person, without asking you. For my son at that age, who is also very sensitive, that was a rule that made a lot of sense to him, and it did not alarm him at all. anon

Run, don't walk, to the bookstore and get ''Protecting the Gift'' by Gavin de Becker. Carrie

Last year before we went to Disneyland I was concerned about how my son, then 4, would handle possibly getting separated from us in such a large place - which naturally brought up the issue of strangers & who is safe to go to for help. We enrolled in one of the parent/child Kidpower classes (one time for 2 hours) it was very helpful. They do a great job of helping parents define who a stranger is & what kind of family safety rules you can make without scaring the beans out of your little one. We continued to find the information they taught to be very useful. Goodluck Romy

I'm sure I won't be the only one to recommend KidPower. They do these little seminars for kids (and parents), teaching the kids how to be safe in the world without freaking them out. Neighborhood Parents Network just sponsored a workshop recently for KidPower, and probably more will be coming up in the future, but I think they also have a website. You could try googling Kidpower. Hope that helps. kidpower grad

Kidpower offers a class for young children: I took the Full power (adult) class and thought it was great. Good luck! Elaine

I don't think it's necessary to talk to any child about stranger safety until that child is likely to be in a situation where he/she is not supervised by an adult. Why would your 4-year-old need this information? Is he going to be walking to/from school alone? Or playing out in the yard by himself? I think we have a false sense of security when we think that by talking to children of this age about stranger danger we are keeping them safe. I think this is more an issue about supervision than about teaching a child of this age to be fearful of strangers. In reality, more children are abducted/abused by people they know, than by strangers. How, in reality, could a 4-year-old protect himself from an adult who wanted to harm him? I think that's being really naive, and expecting much more of a child than is reasonable. Judy

Read ''Protecting the Gift'' by Gavin de Becker. Very smart, very eye- opening. He brings up all kinds of great issues I'd never thought of -- like maybe that, when a kid gets lost, they shouldn't be looking for a policeman (maybe they won't find one, maybe they'll confuse security guards -- statistically not a good bet -- with policemen....); maybe they should go to a woman with children for help (statistically the least likely to harm a child). Karen

I have three kids and have gone through this too. A couple things I found helpful: like anything else you teach your child - manners, reading, talking, etc - mention it casually and often. Don't have the BIG safety talk and scare the willies out of them. As you go through your daily life look for small opportunities to teach them on an ongoing basis. Go through scenarios - starting with things like ''What would you do if someone asked you to help them find their puppy?'' Then tell them that grown-ups ask grown-ups for help - not children. Then a few days later role play that scenario with them. I did this for talking to people who call out from their cars, touching private parts, etc. I still do it. While I don't want to scare them I want them to have at least had the inkling this could happen than be totally taken off guard.

Also give them permission to scream, hit, kick, and bite if ANYONE touches them who shouldn't. Better to apologize later than be sorry.

Lastly for certain hard and fast rules, like don't open the door for anyone if Mommy or Daddy is not available, I would then ask them ''What if so-and-so (say the friendly neighbor) came?'' And the answer is always no. Make the exceptions clear - like Grandma or whomever.

Also, 4 is old enough to learn to dial 9-1-1. Make sure you teach them NOT to hang up after they call - operator needs to trace address.

Good luck. Safe mom

I suspect you will hear this from others, too. Most abductions are NOT by strangers, but by familiar adults, so don't stress the ''Stranger Danger'' aspect (after all, if you are really in trouble, most strangers will help!) At four, your child should still be closely supervised at all times, and as you said, you don't really want him to be afraid of people. But as you start preparing him for a little more independence, make it clear that he is to go with NO ONE, take food from NO ONE, approach NO ONE at all - stranger or not, even his best friend's mom - without checking with you (or whichever adult you have designated as ''incharge'') first. (If you truly trust some other adults, you can later specify which those are - but for now, NO ONE else should be expecting your child to do what they say). He should learn this phrase: ''I have to check'', as he runs to find his in-charge adult. He should also be taught that adults NEVER need help from kids (for directions, finding a lost pet, etc.), and NEVER have the right to make kids do things that don't feel right; so he should not stop to listen to any questions, or go closer to hear - just find his in-charge adult. KidPower is a great program for learning these safety guidelines. They don't teach FEAR - but readiness, and that your safety always comes first (before inconvenience, embarrassment, etc.). R.K.

The way I handled this was never to even deal with what a ''stranger'' was, but to be very firm about who my child could be with. It requires a lot less discretion to say ''you are not my Uncle Dave'' than... ''Gee, he doesn't LOOK dangerous....''

My kids could talk to anyone when their dad or I was with them, but the list of people they could ''go'' with was never more than 3 or 4 names long -- anyone else needs to put them on the phone with me first. Period. I think you'll find that this reflects the system schools will use later -- a list of who IS ok, not a description of who is not. Heather

Talking to 3.5 y/o about strangers

Oct 2003

I was in a pet sotre recently and got a strange vibe off of someone there and suddenly became aware of the fact that I hadn't really had a concrete ''talk'' with my 3.5 year old twins about strangers. They are old enough now to understand how to take safety precautions now but I am not 100% sure how to breech the subject without instilling fear in them that EVERY stranger is a bad stranger. I never leave them unattended, but there have been a couple of nervous seconds in a store or public place where one of them moves out of my vision for a few moments. I want them to have the ability to spot a potentially dangerous situation and know how to deal with it. Any advice would be appreciated CB

KIDPOWER!!!!!! They are THE best at teaching safety without scaring thechild. Very clear recommendations about how and what to say to your child. They have local office and offer parent/ child workshops. Website is Peggy

This is what we told our kids:

1)''These are the people you CAN go anywhere with. No one else.'' (the list was short) - That kept them from having to figure out too young what a ''stranger'' is.

2)''Its not enough that YOU know where you are - if I don't know, you're lost.''

3)''If we are separated in public (you are lost), stop and look around you. If you do not see us, look for a police officer. IF you don't see a police officer walk into a store and tell the person behind the counter.'' (This worked well at the Solano Stroll. My daughter announced her problem to a person in the Bone Room, and the lady behind her said, ''I know who your mom is, you stay here while I go get her.'' Note: if she'd said ''come with me and we'll find her'', that would be a NO- see #1).

And finally - 4) At Disneyland you can tell anyone in a costume with a nametag that you are lost, and they will find us.

Hope it helps~! Heather

I HIGHLY recommend trying to take a KidPower workshop. They address specifically the issue you brought up, as well as giving all kinds of other practical ideas for helping to keep your kids safe. Their workshops are hands-on, fun and full of substance. They have a website-- which is You can get a guidebook from the website, but I think taking the workshop first makes it all make sense. Tammy

This might sound like strange advice, but it is what I have done with all my kids. I encourage them to talk to strangers and I guide them into developing a very loud inner voice.

I encourage them to listen to their inner voice about many things, but wrt to ''strangers'' and known adults, this is what I do.

When *I* meet someone that I get a weird reaction to (my inner voice speaking) I disucss that with my kids. I ask them how they feel about specific people we know and meet. I guide them into sorting their feelings and give absolute respect to their body boundaries and inner voice. I never encourage physical contact (yes, even with grandma and grandpa) unless they are comfortable with it. When they get older (say 5, depending on the child) I'll send them on little errands (''go ask that man what time it is'') and then ask them how they felt about the person - what vibes they got and if they felt they could trust the person or not, etc.

I would highly recommend Kidpower to help you develop body boundaries and give you and your child stratigies to stay safe. Kidpower teaches safety that is applicable to everyday familial situations and predator situations equally - the context is kept in familial situations so there is no need to ''scare'' the child of predator danger. Kathy

Read Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (And Parents Sane) by Gavin De Becker