The ‘Stranger Danger’ Myth | Teaching Our Kids About Their Bodies and Boundaries
In generations past and into today, children have learned about the boundaries of their bodies in relation to how a ‘stranger’ might approach, touch, coerce, or force. ‘Stranger Danger’ has long been the watchword and the media shows us movies, TV segments, reports, and public service announcements focused on the threat of this external, unknown figure – a mysterious ‘someone else’ with very bad intentions and perhaps some candy to offer, or a lost puppy to help find. The stranger convinces the innocent, unsuspecting child that he or she is a friend, simply by being friendly – and we know where this story leads, and how it all too often ends.
Stranger Danger has been the focus in our schools, churches, and homes for decades now. And while it’s a well-worn warning for good reason – the reality is this:
Children are more likely to be sexually assaulted or abused by someone they KNOW, and know well.
According to a 2003 National Institute of Justice report, 3 out of 4 adolescents who have been sexually assaulted were victimized by someone they knew well.
While it’s undeniably important for our children to be well prepared to deal effectively with the true ‘stranger’ who may target them, by focusing solely on this external person who almost exists at this point as a fear-myth for our kids, we forget to bridge the looming gap between how to maintain safe boundaries with a ‘stranger’ and how to do the same with someone they trust or may even love.
It’s simply not enough to help your child recite the word ‘No!’ and teach them to find a trusted adult when 75% of sexual assaults are inflicted on children by those very same adults they’ve learned to trust in the first place.
We’ve got to teach our kids about body ownership, what the difference between comfortable and uncomfortable touching is and when a hug or a lap sit is not a loving or respectful experience. We’ve got to teach our children to trust themselves, to know that when something doesn’t feel right they are empowered to react in the face of that feeling. Our kids rely on us for queues about who is ‘good’ and who to steer clear of, what is respectful and what is not, what (or who) is safe and what (or who) is dangerous. The confusion that follows a child who has been touched or assaulted by someone they thought truly cared for them is often insurmountable. How does a child tell her mother that a beloved family member crossed those boundaries? How does a little boy articulate that his favorite uncle acted or touched him in a way that didn’t feel good?
Our job as parents is to help our children find their voices – especially when someone close to them – a neighbor, friend, family member or teacher crosses that boundary. And of course we want to do this in a way that builds the child’s personal power UP, rather than tear it down with fear tactics.
A few tips to help you, as a mom, communicate with your children about this issue and give them the tools they need to hopefully get out of a situation such as this, and TELL:
Kidpower Safety Rules With People Kids Know
I belong to myself – my body, my time, my spirit – ALL of me. Touch for play, teasing, or affection has to be both people’s choice and it has to be safe.
Except for a doctor, no one should touch me in my private areas (the parts of the body covered by a bathing suit).
No one should ask me to touch them in their private areas.
Touch or other behavior for health or safety is not always a choice, but also should never, EVER, have to be a secret.
I do not have to let what other people say control how I feel.
Anything that bothers me should not have to be a secret.
If I have a problem, I need to tell an adult I trust and keep on telling until I get help.
It is never too late to get help.
To Be Able to Follow These Rules, Children Need to Practice These Kidpower Skills:
Saying “No” to unwanted or inappropriate behavior using polite clear words, eye contact, and assertive body language
Persisting even when someone uses bribes, hurt feelings, or power to try to pressure them into doing something that makes them feel uncomfortable
Protecting themselves from hurtful words
Verbal choices for getting out of potentially dangerous situations
Getting the attention of busy adults and telling the details about situations that make them confused or uncomfortable.
For more information and support about how to talk to your kids about their bodies and their boundaries as well as how to be aware of potential sexual abuse threats to your children visit the following resources:
McGruff The Crime Dog – interactive website designed for kids
Take 25 – Take 25 minutes to talk to your kids about safety