As parents, you worry about your children’s safety, from stranger abduction to unwanted internet contact. Figuring out how to talk to your kids about risks without scaring them can be a daunting task. When do you introduce safety topics, what do you say and how do you say it?
You are the best person to talk to your children about personal safety. And the best time is now, with the information provided at a developmentally appropriate level. Listening to your children’s concerns and encouraging them to talk openly about anything is the first step to decreasing the communication gap. Even if you might be uncomfortable or not like what they are going to say, you set the stage for open communication. Let your kids know that your primary concern is their safety. You might start a conversation with the words, “You are so important to me, and my job is to keep you safe. Let’s talk about what staying safe means.”
Setting up family rules and expectations can create a safer environment for your child.
* Where are they allowed to go?
* Whom are they allowed to see?
* Which activities are OK for them?
* When do they need to check in with you?
Be aware of where your kids are at all times and with whom. Know their social media contacts and keep up-to-date on the current websites and phone apps. Your children’s safety increases when they are not alone, so reinforce sticking with their friends. And remember, saying no is OK. Jut like you, your children need to learn to trust and follow their instincts about staying safe. The best way to keep them safe, or to know when something goes wrong, is to establish clear, consistent family rules. Knowing your family’s guidelines upfront takes away the uncertainty of what is expected. This helps to lessen the burden on your kids when faces with tough choices.
Safety Practices for Pre-K Children
* Choose childcare thoughtfully, and check references before having someone watch your children, even if you know the person. Drop by unannounced just to see how your kids are doing.
* Have your kids memorize their full names and your phone number as soon as they are developmentally ready, which is usually around four years of age.
* Teach your children whom to look for help if they become separated from you in a public place. Find a police officer, security guard, someone in charge or look for a woman with children (“another mommy”) to ask for help.
* Set parental controls on all electronic media your children have access to in the home; do not allow unattended access to the internet.
* For this age-group, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no more than one hour of screen time per day with parental supervision.
Safety Practices for Kindergarteners Through Sixth-Graders
* Teach your children which houses they are allowed to enter, and set boundaries on where they can go in the neighborhood.
* Get to know the parents of your children’s friends, and obtain their address and phone number.
* Create a rule that your children are not allowed to go anywhere outside these boundaries without your permission.
* Never drop your children off alone at a public place, such as a mall, park or movie theater.
* Advise your kids not to talk to adults they don’t know and not to accept gifts without your knowledge or permission. Sometimes potential predators might get children to like them through manipulative kindness or gifts.
* Put parental controls on all electronic media your kids have access to in the home, changing passwords periodically. Set up WIFI limits and access, especially during late-night hours.
* The AAP recommends consistent screen time limits and discourages electronic use replacing sleep time.
Safety Practices for Seventh-Through Twelfth-Graders
* Teach your teens about safety in numbers and that they should not go out alone.
* Make sure you always know where your teens are and with whom.
* Make sure an adult is present when they are at a friend’s house.
* Reinforce that it is okay to say no if anyone does anything that makes them uncomfortable.
* Educate your teens about internet safety, such as risks involving someone online pretending be a teen.
* Monitor with whom your teens are online gaming, and remind them to never game with a stranger.
* Have access to their social media and cell phone, and review the contents regularly.
* It is never OK for your teens to take nude pictures of themselves or have such pictures of others. They could become victims of child pornography.
* Tell your teens not to give out their phone number to someone they just met.
Sometimes your busy life means that your older children may be home alone for a period of time. When being home alone is necessary, establish clear rules to keep them safe. All children and families are different and each state has its own laws about leaving kids home alone, so know your state’s laws and listen to your children about their comfort level. The first time you leave your kids home alone should be for around 15 minutes, so they get used to the experience. Kids are not safe home alone at night, but older teens may be able to stay home alone after dark.
Guidelines for Leaving Kids Home Alone
* Advise your children to listen to their instincts and not to enter the house if something does not feel right.
* Your children should lock the doors.
* Establish family rules about when your kids check in with you, and have them check in regularly.
* Your children should not answer the door unless you have established a specific plan.
* Have a landline for emergencies and post emergency phone numbers. Instruct your kids never to share that they are home alone.
* Establish restrictions to social media and internet access clearly, including online gaming.
The safety of your children will always be your main concern, no matter their age. It is your job to establish guidelines, rules and expectations within your family dynamics to help ensure safety. The world your children face and live in is ever-changing and unpredictable. Stability, consistency, open communication and self-awareness help ensure that your children will see a safer tomorrow.
Shenoa Williams, CPNP, SANE-P, works as a PNP and Pediatric Sexual Abuse Forensic Examiner (SANE-P) with the Child Advocacy Center at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. She specializes in the safety of children.
Debra Shane, MSN, RN, SANE-A, works for the Child Advocacy Center at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC as an Out-Patient Nurse Coordinator and Forensic Nurse. She has practiced as a Sexual Abuse Nurse Examiner (SANE-A) since 2007.