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How to Teach ‘Stranger Danger’ With Facts Instead of Fear

“Stranger Danger” prepares kids for exaggerated threats, but consent can help them in any situation.

Teaching a kid about “stranger danger” isn’t as simple as telling them strangers are bad and calling it a day. In fact, the idea of stranger danger is vastly overblown; the majority of child abductions and sexual abuse cases are not committed by strangers, and the bulk of missing children run away, instead of being abducted. Parents concerned with child safety need a more comprehensive approach that goes beyond stranger danger — one that teaches children to recognize suspicious behaviors regardless of the context. 

“The most important thing that parents need to know is that 93 percent of sexual abuse against children is perpetrated by those known to the child — meaning family, friends, and those they know in their environment, like teachers and coaches,” explains Elizabeth Jeglic, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the City University of New York Graduate Center, and author of Protecting Your Child from Sexual Abuse. “We are targeting the wrong individuals when we teach our children about stranger danger. We are better off teaching our children about consent and that no one should be touching them without their permission.”

The Better Way to Teach Stranger Danger

  • Don’t accept rides from strangers — Adults have no business asking a child to get into their car.
  • Offenders can look like anyone — A third of abuse perpetrated against minors is committed by another minor; 10 percent of offenders are female.
  • “Stranger Danger” isn’t enough — 93 percent of childhood sexual abuse is committed by an adult known to the child.
  • Consent is key — Kids need to understand that they control who can and cannot touch their bodies, and they can leave when a situation feels wrong.
  • Talk about it — Kids need to practice saying no and telling an adult when someone touches them in an inappropriate manner.
  • Back them up — When a child decides they don’t want to be touched, either in a tickle fight or when they meet Aunt Edna, parents need to respect that.

Kids should be wary of strangers, and the basic stranger-danger best practices are sound: Don’t get into a car with a stranger. An adult has no business approaching a child in a car and asking them for help finding a lost pet, or offering them candy, or claiming a mysterious emergency.

But threats can come from anywhere — a third of abuse against minors is committed by minors, and 10 percent of sex offenders are female. That’s why consent is the most important concept kids need to protect themselves from a wide range of bad situations: Children have control over and responsibility for their own bodies.

“The best option is to teach children to trust their instincts in how to handle situations that make them feel uncomfortable — like what you do if you are at a friend’s house and someone there tries to touch you, or show you inappropriate material — and then role-play the situation with your child,” suggests Jeglic.

Role-playing the scenario is just giving kids a chance to practice protecting themselves. Despite what the day-to-day experience of negotiating broccoli and bedtime may suggest, defying adults can be very daunting to a child. But the response to anyone who tries to push a child into a situation that feels wrong — from a stranger on the street to a friend’s older brother — is the same: Get away and tell a trusted adult. 

Parents also need to make sure that they support their kids who do exercise control over their bodies. Scolding a child for not kissing a distant relative can send mixed messages about what they control — it can even make them feel ashamed about not wanting to be touched, which can be a big problem.

“You want them to not feel shame if something happens to them — that you are there to help them and support them, no matter what,” advises Jeglic. “Teaching them to trust their instincts and supporting their instincts — not letting other adults hug them or touch them against their will — will help them to better handle situations and report to you when such situations occur so an adult can intervene.”