We are raising a people person in our house. A few months ago, on a trip to the mall, our four-year-old raced up to a strange man and woman, introduced himself and invited them back to our house. In fact, each time we go to the park, he invites everyone at the park back to our home for dinner or play dates. Fortunately, no one has ever taken him up on his offer.

But it got me thinking, when is too young to talk to him about stranger danger? I also began thinking about walking the fine line between scaring the kid away from trusting anyone, while also teaching him that some people in the great big world might intend him harm. It’s tough for a young child to understand the difference.

There are stories on the news every day of kids who are approached, abducted, and harmed (or worse) that strike fear into the hearts of parents everywhere. It’s one of the reasons why this is a necessary conversation.

Stranger vs Stranger

According to the National Crime Prevention Safety Council, one of the keys is to help your children understand the difference between safe strangers and suspicious strangers. A safe stranger is someone that they can go to for help – like a law enforcement officer, firefighter, or someone who works at a school, library or other safe place.

We see strangers all the time and it’s important to make sure your child understands that not all strangers are dangerous. If your child wants to be friendly and say hello to a stranger, that’s normal and acceptable in most cases. Since you are probably with your child, you can limit the interaction if you feel that something might be amiss with the stranger. According to the NCPSC, you want to teach your children that if that stranger acts suspiciously, like offering them food or candy, asking your child to go with them or tells them not to tell you about their conversation, that is a problem. Your child needs to understand that they need to tell you about those encounters immediately.

What to Do When in Danger

Another important element of this conversation is what your child should do if they are confronted with a dangerous stranger. The NCPSC recommends teaching a child to say no, run away, yell if they need to get someone’s attention, and tell a safe stranger right away about what happened.

Teach Confidence and Trust

Realize that you’ve probably instilled strong lessons in your children so they have a good understanding of right and wrong. Encourage them to trust their instincts and if they feel someone is potentially dangerous, to act on their concerns.

It’s also a good idea to make sure that your children feel safe and comfortable sharing their experiences with you. If you react negatively or judge your child constantly, they may not be willing to be open and honest with you for fear of rejection or criticism. If you stay calm, listen to them, and respond in an understanding yet firm way, it will probably go a long way towards keeping the lines of communication open for topics as important as stranger danger.

Social Media Danger

It’s also crucial for a child to understand that strangers are not only the people they see in public, but also the people who lurk online and on social media, possibly attempting to get close to them. These strangers might be every bit as dangerous as those they would encounter on the street. Dealing with those strangers is more difficult and easier at the same time. It’s easy to deny someone access to a Facebook page or Instragram account. However, it also might seem benign, so it’s easier just to give them access thinking there’s no harm. Make sure you teach your child that their social media accounts need to be private at all times.

In most instances, especially when your children are young, you will be with your child most of the time so you must keep a watchful eye on them. As they get older, you’ll need to reinforce these lessons more often.