Playtime: Keeping kids safe when strangers approach

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With each report of a luring attempt, we’re reminded of that heart-sinking feeling and the anxiety involved in approaching and teaching our children how to stay safe. Social media, multiplayer video games and the internet in general have expanded the conversation about the appropriate way to interact with people we don’t know.

But in the case of the luring attempt this month at the Edmonds Yacht Club, the suspect used a tactic we’ve all heard of. The 59-year-old Lynnwood woman, in custody since her arrest “minutes” after a 911 call was made, asked her 4-year-old intended victim to leave the area, where she was playing with other children, to see her “kitty cat.” When I spoke with Sgt. Josh McClure with the Edmonds Police Department, he explained that she and the other children responded perfectly. The young girl knew not to go with anyone and once she got visibly upset about not wanting to go, the other children told her to say no because the woman was a stranger, and then went inside the Yacht Club to get an adult.

After reading about the incident and additionally, after learning that the other children involved were able to use the tools they’d been given, I was reminded of a column covering multiple reported incidents in Mountlake Terrace in 2014. At that time, we contacted the Edmonds Police Department and a local therapist to share their ideas for the best way to approach the subject and tips to keep our children safe in these situations. To update the conversation, though it doesn’t relate to the incident at the Edmonds waterfront, Sgt. McClure shared an Internet and Social Media Safety talk given by Detective Stacie Trykar of the Edmonds Police Department, which you can find on their YouTube channel.

Below is a reposting of the column from November 2014:

Around Halloween, I got an email from my oldest son’s school explaining there had been “two reported incidents of child luring” in the area. Nothing makes you realize you have the “it won’t happen to me” mentality like getting an email with information from a police department in it. I also quickly realized I wasn’t sure how to have this conversation with my kids. I mean, how can you give them the info to keep them safe without scaring them? The term “stranger” or “bad guy” has been joined by “tricky people” and “uh-oh feeling” in the vocabulary used to talk to your kids about safety when they are away from adults, but I wracked my brain for the “stop, drop and roll” version of the stranger danger conversation. When I felt stumped, I reached out to both the Edmonds Police Department and a local child and family therapist to get the what-to-do and how-to-do-it for talking to your kids about rules for their safety.

I got some great answers from Sgt. Mark Marsh from the Edmonds Police Department. First, I asked him what he would suggest I tell my sons to do if someone they don’t know approaches them. According to Marsh, “Kids should always use the buddy system when walking to and from school or any other location. Most of the luring cases or attempted lurings happen when a child is alone.” This is true for the recent case in Mountlake Terrace as detailed in the note from their police department – “in both cases, the drivers of vehicles attempted to contact students walking home alone and offered rides home.”

Many times, Marsh says, the luring suspect will use the excuse of “your mom/dad told me to come get you,” so it can be helpful to have a “safe” word that you and your child agree upon. That way, if someone tells the child they are sent by their parents, the lack of the agreed-upon word can serve as a red flag.

While those cases are the majority, there are other tricks that perpetrators use, Sgt. Marsh told me. “There have been cases where the stranger will ask a child for directions or wants to just ask them a question,” he said. “Have the child simply say ‘no’ and keep walking. If the stranger persists, have the child walk the other way.

“Running away is always a good option whenever possible,” he added.

When I talked to my kids about this right after getting the note from school, I had sort of hoped I had nailed it. However, after watching my son take the info I gave him and hatch a plan for his safety that was straight out of a G.I. Joe cartoon, it was clear I needed more than that initial ‘what-to-do’ talk. So I contacted Kim Von Bahr, a local children’s and family therapist, to ask her some of the how-to questions when approaching your kids with such a tricky topic.

When my boys and I first talked about it I was trying to stay calm while feeling apprehensive about what to say and scared of what could happen to them. Von Bahr explained that parents should be calm — “You don’t want your child to feel threatened or as if they are in trouble, yet you need them to understand that you are serious.”

She often tells parents that in order to convey the serious nature of the meeting, they should think “outside the box” for a way to differentiate this discussion from an everyday talk or family meeting they may already have. On suggestion is to have an “atypical” way to go about this, for instance, add another family to the mix.

Knowing that the strangers, bad guys or “tricky people,” as they have also recently been called, really do use tricks has always been a large concern for me. Von Bahr says, “Role-playing is an excellent way to provide examples around ‘grooming’ behaviors — that is, when an adult might try to lure a child with something he or she wants (candy, electronics). Also explain the concept of ‘manipulation’ to your child, and use examples (such as asking for help to find a missing pet).”

I can vividly remember asking my oldest, who was about 5 at the time, what he would do if someone had offered him Legos if he went in their car. He very proudly told me he would go to the car to get the Legos and then come back. I was honestly shocked and have since promised to buy them anything a stranger offers them. It is clear now after hearing from Sgt. Marsh and Ms. Von Bahr, our family needs a “safe” word.

Beyond my initial questions to Von Bahr, I asked if she had any other advice. She responded with a list of “quick tips” that I would have appreciated before I talked with my kids.  They are:

1. Use age-appropriate language, but don’t mince words. By age 7 or 8, children exposed to many different social settings have learned to adapt to many different communication styles and already “know a lot”. You probably won’t be shocking them.

2. Give your child some cheat sheet ideas:

A. Educate your child about “instinct”: Children may need some tangible guidance here. Tell your child to use a three-second stranger rule: If he or she is being asked or told to do something unusual by an unfamiliar person, and it causes them to stop and think about it for more than three seconds, it’s OK to always answer NO loudly and go in the other direction. Practice this rule by counting out “how long” three seconds is, and do some role-playing.

B. Tell your child to use a “Stop and Pause” rule: If he or she is being asked or told to do something unusual, then 1) STOP and think about the request and  2) PAUSE while your child asks himself/herself “would both my parents (or caregiver) want me to do this?”

3. Show your child a line graph which describes the continuum (on a scale of 1-10) of inappropriate behaviors (from benign, or less harmful to more obvious/harmful). Make sure your child understands the concept of manipulation and that an inappropriate request can start out as less harmful but is still just as serious as being asked to do something more risky.

4. Discuss the concept of responsible adults, and identify those individuals in your child’s life that are appropriate “go-to” people if they feel uncomfortable about anything (teachers, school counselor, after-school caregivers). Your child may think of that person unique to his/her professional role in the community—make sure your child knows that these professionals are approachable for other reasons as well.

5. Don’t underestimate your child’s capacity for understanding sophisticated information. Social media, community education and interaction with peers have most likely paved the way to a heightened awareness of the dangers in our environment.

— By Jennifer Marx

Jen Marx, an Edmonds mom of two boys, is always looking for a fun place to take the kids that makes them tired enough to go to bed on time.

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