Keeping Kids Safe

Keeping Kids Safe

All parents face the same concerns when it comes to the safety of their children: who to trust and who not to trust, what they can do to ensure their children’s safety when they are not present, what to teach their children about safety, and how to teach it.

Parents need to teach children how to identify and manage uncertain situations, but they also need to ensure that the environments their kids visit are safe. Two of the biggest safety topics among parents of young children are how to keep children safe from predators (both people the family already knows and strangers) and how to ensure that friends’ home environments are safe to visit. 

Keeping them safe from predators.

We need to help kids recognize uncertain or potentially unsafe people and situations and give them the knowledge and skills to keep themselves safe. Even though most parents worry about the potential abusers they don’t know, the most common predators are people children have met or are familiar with. It’s neither helpful nor effective to use scare tactics when educating kids about staying safe. It’s best to communicate with your children in a loving, relaxed way. Here are just a few tips for keeping kids safe from predators:

  1. Listen to your child and be present.

    Let your children know that they can come to you with any concern or problem without feeling judged. Practice being present by focusing your attention on your children when they are speaking to you. Turn off or put away screens that may be hindering your ability focus fully on your children.

  2. Teach problem-solving skills.

    Teach problem-solving skills so your child can make good choices in a precarious situation. You can do this by approaching daily challenges calmly together, thinking through problems, brainstorming solutions, and encouraging your children to try them out.

  3. Teach your children to recognize their emotions and trust their instincts. 

    Help your children understand that their instinct is there to keep them safe. It’s that little voice, that feeling inside them telling them if something is safe or unsafe. It can be described as an “uh-oh” feeling. You can tell them their instinct might be wrong sometimes, but if it’s telling them they might be in danger or that a situation is unsafe, they should always listen to it, just in case. Explain that if they ever feel scared or uncomfortable, they should get away as fast as they can and tell a trusted adult what happened.

  4. Help your child understand who is safe and who isn’t. 

    Talk to your children about “tricky people” and how they can be people you know very well, not at all, or just a little bit. Anyone who makes your child feel uncomfortable or produces an “uh-oh” feeling inside may be a “tricky person,” a person who is not to be trusted. Tricky people may try to get kids to “help” them, and it’s important that your children recognize this. Kids must understand that adults—particularly those they don’t know—don’t need kids’ help, and a request like this can be a clear sign of a tricky person. 

  5. Teach them to act on their “uh-oh feelings” and to be assertive. 

    Make sure your children know that it’s okay to say no to an adult and to run away from adults when their instincts tell them something is wrong. “No, Go, Yell, Tell” are the four words that the National Crime Prevention Council suggests using when teaching children what to do when “tricky people” make them feel uncomfortable. This phrase teaches children to say no, run away quickly, yell for help, and tell a trusted adult what happened. Tell your children that in these situations, manners are no longer necessary. They are allowed to hit, scream, and make a scene.

  6. Identify safe people and places. 

    Help your children identify safe places to play, safe people to ask for help, and safe places to go if there’s trouble. When your children need help or are lost, if a trusted adult isn’t available, they should look for a mom with kids to help them.

Safe in others’ homes.

Ensuring your child’s safety in another family’s home is a significant concern of many parents. Experts say that gun violence among America’s children is an epidemic and that firearms are the second leading cause of death for children 19 years old and younger. The only way to verify your child’s safety is by ensuring that your own firearms—if you have any—are properly locked up, and asking the awkward and uncomfortable question whether or not the family your children is visiting keeps guns in the home. It’s important to do this in advance of a visit or playdate. Here are some suggestions for ways to broach the topic with another parent in a diplomatic manner:

  • “I was in the paediatrician’s office the other day, and Hannah’s doctor insisted that I ask each parent whose home she visits whether or not they keep guns in the house. It sounded like a good idea. Do you mind telling me if you have firearms in your house?”
  • “Susie is really looking forward to the playdate tomorrow. I know this may sound strange, and it might feel like a bit much, but could you tell me if you keep any guns in your house?”
  • “My son is very curious and gets into everything. You’d be amazed by the things he’s dug up at our house that I realized later might be dangerous. I’m wondering if you have a gun in the house that he might find by accident.”

If the parents confirm that they own a firearm, thank them for telling you. Then, depending on your level of comfort, ask whether the gun is secured in a gun locker, or just tell the parents you aren’t comfortable and suggest that the kids come to your house instead. Having these conversations will not only ensure your child’s safety; they’ll also teach other parents that it’s a valuable conversation to have. If more parents have these conversations, the less awkward they’ll be.

Taking time to educate and prepare your child for the unforeseeable is not only wise but can also provide peace of mind. Children need to be taught the skills to manage uncertain situations. These are skills you can teach daily through consistent, open communication, helping children identify their feelings and listen to their intuition, and practising safety drills in response to difficult scenarios.

Would you like to have your own Guide to Keeping Kids Safe to make sure you are covering all your bases with your children?

This article originally appeared on the Committee For Children blog on April 4, 2017.


About the Author: Melissa Benaroya


Melissa Benaroya, LICSW, is a Seattle-based parent coach, speaker and author in the Seattle area (MelissaBenaroya.com). She created the Childproof Parenting online course and is the co-founder of GROW Parenting and Mommy Matters, and the co-author of The Childproof Parent. Melissa provides parents with the tools and support they need to raise healthy children and find more joy in parenting. Melissa offers parent coaching and classes and frequently speaks at area schools and businesses. Check out Melissa’s blog for more great tips on common parenting issues and Facebook for the latest news in parent education.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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