Stranger Danger? Smart Strategies to Help Keep Your Child Safe

With parade sounds of blaring horns and beating drums marching off into the distance, Angie Worth, along with her newborn daughter Ella, her 2-year-old son Todd, and her elderly grandmother, began to head back to the car. The exciting morning turned into panicked chaos when Worth lost sight of her energetic toddler.

“Todd took off running into the crowd and was out of my sight in just a few seconds,” Worth says. “I started yelling his name and running in the general direction of where I thought he might be.” Just as she was about to call the police, Todd reappeared. “I was relieved and shaken at the same time,” she says.

The idea of losing a child and not knowing what happened to him is every parent’s worst nightmare. Although abduction by strangers is statistically rare, the media sensationalism of such events makes the ordeal seem all the more likely. Chances are though, your child may sometime need to seek help from a stranger, which leaves many parents scratching their heads: Who should your child approach for help and how much information should your child give? Beth Wegner, Crime Prevention Specialist for the Olathe Police Department (OPD), facilitates safety workshops with parents and children.

Define “stranger.”

Wegner tells children that strangers can be nice. They may have toys or pets, but “strangers are people you do not know.” In general, she says it’s easiest to teach very young children not to talk to strangers at all. “For the older children, we can go into more detail, and usually through questions, flesh out what a dangerous stranger is,” she says. Most importantly, if someone makes your child feel uncomfortable and won’t leave her alone, she should yell “Stranger!” and run and tell a trusted adult.

Practice “what-if” scenarios.

Use visits to large stores, shopping malls or the zoo as opportunities to educate your children about what to do if you should become separated from each other. Agree on an easy-to-find meeting spot. Debby Helmer, a former nanny and school teacher, says she began pointing out cash registers at various stores to her son Alex, age 7, when he was 3 years old. “I have found that the cash registers are easier to find than customer service. And I tell my kids to only talk to the cashier,” she says. Most of all, assure your child that you will never leave a place without him.

Are there safe strangers?

Wegner doesn’t advocate ever talking to strangers. “With impersonators out there, including women with children, the safe stranger concept is a slippery slope,” Wegner says. Err on the side of caution if you point out strangers your children could seek help from. In a store, for example, make sure they notice a store employee’s actual uniform, including distinctive name tags or badges, and not just the colors employees wear. Also, instruct them to only talk to employees in an area where other people are around.

Share limited information.

Car rides provide a good time to practice going over your child’s name, address and phone number. Turning it into a sing-song jingle helps him memorize all those numbers. If your child does seek help from a stranger, however, his first name and his parents’ first and last names should suffice, says Wegner.

Take pictures.

Helmer suggests nonchalantly taking your children’s picture with your cell phone when you arrive at a busy public place. Not only will you have yet another adorable picture of their smiling mugs to text to your family and friends, you’ll also have a current picture of your children to share right away with authorities should the unthinkable occur. And you won’t have to rack your already panicked brain about what clothes they wore that day.

Avoid advertising your child’s name on the back of his coat or backpack.

Predators can use your child’s name as a way to strike up a conversation.

Have a couple of “in case of emergency” friends on call, just in case.

Schools typically ask families to designate a few emergency contacts who have permission to pick children up from school in the event of an emergency. Have a similar carte-blanche policy in your family and make sure your kids know who the designated safe people are whom you have selected to pick them up in any emergency situation.

Tell them who they may NOT go with.

It’s difficult enough to have someone untrustworthy in your family, but if you do not want that person to pick up your children in case of an emergency, then the children need to know that they should stay put until one of their “safe people” arrives.

Have a secret family password.

If someone asks your child to go somewhere, your child can say that she is only allowed to go with someone who knows the password. Explain to your child that even if the person is insistent that he has your permission, you would never give anyone permission to take her anywhere without her knowing ahead of time. And, if it’s a real emergency, the person you’ve put in charge will know the family password.

Find more child safety tips at,,, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s website at, and your local police department.

Christa Melnyk
About Christa Melnyk

Author Christa Melnyk Hines is a shameless“mama bear” when it comes to the safety of her sons, ages 4 and 6.


  1. Uhh I have struggled with this SO MUCH!! I have two kiddos, 6 and 2.5, (and hopefully one on the way). Both are out going, friendly kids. I want them to be able to enjoy people but sometimes they are just to dang friendly. When we went to visit Nana we make several stops, one at a rest stop, as we were running around in the grass she grabbed an older ladies hand and started walking them to their car….YEAH I KNOW RIGHT!
    She looked like Nana and I was two feet from her but I was horrified. My girl is super cute(not just bragging cause she gets that a lot from…total strangers. Several times I have been told I have lovely looking kids and that kinda creeped me out each time…and I have no clue where they get it, not from me! LOL).
    Anyway how do you find that balance? Of being friendly yet safe? I have talked with them about people that act nice but would take them away. Good and bad touching…all age appropriate but still. They will talk to just about anyone with a smile. I hate to loose that innocence by being scary enough to stop them.
    Uhhh being a parent is HARD.

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