How Can I Talk To My Kid About The Scary Stuff Without Terrifying Her?



Every parent has a “thing” – that one scary horrible thought about their children that freaks them out more than anything.  What keeps you up with worry?  For some it’s choking.  Or drowning.  Abduction.  Pulling a hot pot off the stove.  Falling.  SIDS.  You name it – they’re all horrible.

When my sister was a single parent to a 3 year old, she used to play a “game” with her daughter to teach her about her safety.  It was called the “911 game” and it went like this:

My sister: Hello, 911 operator, what’s your emergency?

3 year old: Um, my mommy (the humor of that answer was never lost on us)

My sister: Is something wrong with your mommy?  Do you know her name?

3 year old: (she would make up an “emergency” like “she fell down”)

My sister: OK – what’s your address, little girl?

And it would go on.

It was a smart way for my super prepared sister to have her little girl learn her address, phone number, mom’s full name and what to do to get help. (Something most kids – and some adults – can’t remember.) She wanted to make sure that if something were ever to happen to her – choking, passing out, falling – the only other person in the house would know how to get help.  I wondered, how do most kids learn to call 911?  We all remember the examples we’ve heard on the news of the amazing two-year-old hero who saved their epileptic parent after having a seizure.

Most parents intentionally or unintentionally freak their kids out to try to scare them to be safe.  “A stranger might take you/don’t talk to strangers” has been the misguided mantra to “teach” kids personal safety.  But here’s the sad fact:  90% of the harm done to children is from someone they know.  So statistically, with 6 million abuse cases reported a year, 5.4million cases of them are not by strangers.

Kids need to be taught to trust their gut/fear and to know what to do when something feels uncomfortable.  (Wouldn’t we all be better off with that advice?) They need to be heard and respected when they hesitate to hug Uncle Joe at the Thanksgiving table – whether that hesitation is founded or not.  If they feel icky about it, let’s not force the situation.

But beyond abduction or abuse, what about teaching them about what to do if they’re lost?  Did you know that 7 out of 10 kids get lost in their lifetime?  Teaching children to look for a police officer is also outdated info.  The new approach is to teach them to look for a mom with kids (generally the safest option) since moms are easily recognizable and available.  Children also need to know their parent or caregiver’s name and phone number.

Let’s stop and help our children TODAY to stay safe without scaring them.

Here are some empowering rules to embrace… (thanks to the amazing children’s safety educator, Pattie Fitzgerald of Safely Ever After, Inc)

1. Empower kids to trust their “uh-oh feeling”.

2. Encourage them to “check first” when they want to go anywhere we don’t know about.

3. Teach them that they are the “Boss of their Body” and that no one is allowed to hurt them.

4. Practice saying their name, address and phone number so they know it – and if they’re too young to learn, engage them in this duct tape craft to help them learn it.

5. Let them understand that safe adults don’t ask kids for help.

6. Empower them to say no if something feels wrong – they don’t have to be polite in that case.

7. Everyone’s bathing suit parts are private.

8. If they get lost, freeze and yell or ask a mom with kids for help.

Knowing how to talk to your kids about these tough topics should take some of the scare out of the conversation.  You can still expect plenty of questions – and that’s a good thing.  This isn’t a one time conversation – it’s an ongoing imparting of knowledge. Hopefully these tips will go a long way towards keeping your kids happy, healthy and safe.


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  1. says

    You are right, there is a wrong way to teach kids and handle fears they may have or you may have. Love the way your sister taught her 3 year old.
    last year I had 2 little girls that came to my door in my neighborhood that were lost. One lived here and the other lived in the mountain and was visiting. They had went out for a walk and got lost. Here were 2 6 year olds and the one that lived in the mountain new her phone number. I tried to call her mother for more information, but no one answered the phone. They did not know there last names, so I could look them up. I was totally shock at the information they didn’t know.

    Finally I decided my only hope was to start walking with them in the neighborhood and try to find there house. Luck enough they could tell me, yes this is the right direction. Finally we found the house. Mom was getting ready to leave the house to look for them. She was scared to death. Had they known there name or at least there phone number it would have saved mom a lot of worry and fear.
    It is so important to teach them the information encase they are in need of help. And for your sister to teach her daughter how to get help if need is great and yes, it can save a life.
    I was just happy that these girls came to my house, so they were safe. I did have them stay outside while I tried to call the one mom that wasn’t home. I was going to call the police, but decided first to try to find the house.

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  2. says

    Great post and great game idea. Role playing definitely is better than “lecturing” what they should do in emergencies. We do drills few times a year and watch Stranger Safety DVDs we got 3-4 years ago. We live in Chicago so I’ll look into The Safety Show.

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  3. Sue says

    I have 4 kids – ages 4 – 10. There have been enough instances in the news of things happening and kids not knowing what to do that we have safety plans for almost any situation. The usual – fire alarms, getting lost, mom is hurt, etc. But we have also made a safety plan for what happens if you get home from school and mom’s not there. What happens if someone you KNOW offers you a ride home from school. We’ve discussed what they need to do to protect themselves in just about every situation that I can think of. And then even just as important, we’ve talked about what to do if they make a mistake and something bad does happen. I want them to know that no matter what has happened, I love them and will support them and that they should never be afraid to tell or ask for help.

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  4. Melissa says

    I agree with everything, except a dad with kids can be someone to watch out for. I agree that “stranger danger” is a mistake, but making all men scary and dangerous is a mistake too.

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  5. MamaD says

    I taught my kids all the “stranger danger” warnings, I made sure they knew all proper names for their body parts, I drilled into their heads about not letting anyone touch them anywhere that a swimsuit covers, to come tell us anything no matter what.
    Someone got to them anyway. Someone who I trusted implicitly.
    Talk about what feels like a big, fat, fucking parenting fail.

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    • Finisterre says

      Oh MamaD, you poor soul, I feel for you so badly. It was NOT your fail. It was the responsibility of the terrible person that got to them. You can’t go through life not trusting anyone, and to have taught them not to trust anyone, ever, would have been the wrong thing to do. I’m so sorry this person betrayed your legitimate trust, and caused you and your children this suffering. It’s NOT your fault.

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