South suburban focusRecently, while playing an online adventure game, RuneScape, my 10-year-old son’s friend received a message from another player asking him how old he was, his gender and if he liked sex. Two preteen girls in our area were approached by a man in a van who wanted them to "get in." And, not far from our house lives a registered sex offender.
In 2002, 797,500 children under the age of 18 were reported missing in a one-year period, yet according to The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children only 115 of these kids were abducted by a complete stranger. And, while it is estimated that one in every five girls and one in 10 boys will be sexually victimized before they hit adulthood, many times it is a trusted family member or friend. Bottom line—stranger danger will most likely not be a stranger at all.
Amanda Felgenhauer of Shorewood is a part-time police officer at Indian Head Park. She has been a juvenile officer for the past nine years and knows predators prey on the fact that parents want to keep their children innocent. Felgenhauer gives safety and stranger danger talks to children as young as kindergarten and is already teaching her own children, 3-year-old twins and a 15-month-old, the basics that will keep them safe.
Here is what Felgenhauer says you should be teaching your children.
Communication. Predators bank on silence. Develop open communication with your children from the beginning. Make sure they know they can come to you about anything. "Talk to them about topics including body parts and who can and cannot touch them." She suggests starting around age 2 or 3. Felgenhauer stresses that parents should use real names for body parts. "If your child does become a victim, it will be important during a victim interview that they know what is being talked about."
Trust. Make sure your child doesn’t get caught up in the stranger danger image. Many kids think stranger danger is a scary monster or ugly, easily identified threat. Teach them to judge a person’s actions and their own gut feelings rather than a person’s image or who they are.
"I’ve worked on a lot of child sex abuse cases. Most of the time the sexual predator was the mom’s boyfriend or someone else the family was close to. It’s hard. You love this person, trust them and bring them into your home. ... If your child approaches you about this person, take what they say seriously."
Felgenhauer also says to make sure your child knows adults should never tell a child to keep something secret from their parents. It is a sign something is not right.
Concentrate on the positive. Yes, you have to talk about bad things with your children. But, just as important is concentrating on the positive. Follow up that "don’t go with strangers" with who they can go with. In an emergency, tell them, ‘this is who I would send for you.’ If they are lost, tell them to look for a policeman in uniform, a store clerk or find a mom with children to help. A child who only knows not to talk to strangers won’t know who to go to if in trouble.
Practice. Felgenhauer says it is important to let your children practice what they are learning by giving them scenarios and letting them figure out the appropriate response. "My children know that if they are lost and can’t find me that they should go to a police officer or find another mommy. I have little poster boards with picture on them to show this."
Teach the basics. "Make sure your children know basic information," she says. "They should know their full name and their mom and dad’s name. The more they know about themselves, the easier it will be for someone to help them."
Know who lives in your area. Bad people live in all neighborhoods. If there is a registered sex offender who lives along your child’s route make sure your child knows who they are and to beware of them, not to go with them or stop to talk to them. But when you tell them, Felgenhauer says to reinforce that we don’t always know who the bad people are. There may be other people in the area to watch for.
Instincts over manners. We all want our children to be polite. But Felgenhauer says we need to let our children know that if they feel threatened or if something doesn’t seem right, it is OK to forgo the manners. "Adults don’t approach children for help. If one approaches your child, they need to know it is OK not to help or talk to them and instead leave ... run to a neighbor. If someone does grab them, teach them they should pull away and if that doesn’t work, they should pull down to the ground with all of their body weight. Tell them not to yell help, it is often ignored. Instead yell ‘you are not my mom’ or ‘you are not my dad.’ "
Be careful online. Watch when your children are on the Internet. Keep the computer in a high traffic area and check what your child is doing. Read e-mails and visit sites on your child’s history. "Parents don’t realize just how dangerous the Internet is. It is like letting the stranger right in."
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