Why Teaching Kids “Stranger Danger” Doesn’t Work

Written By

Shannon Wassenaar
February 23, 2024

This article has been reviewed by Nurtured First’s team of child development experts.

Sophie’s parents taught her “stranger danger” from a young age. They warned their kids not to talk to strangers whenever they were out in public. 

When 5-year-old Sophie got lost in a large department store after wandering away from her mom to look at the toys, she was frozen with fear. She didn’t know where her mother had gone, and she was too afraid to ask the other shoppers in the store for help because she didn’t recognize any of their faces. 

Feeling defeated, Sophie sat on the floor of the aisle and cried. After a few moments, Sophie caught the attention of one of the store clerks. The store clerk asked Sophie if she was alright but got no reply. Then, the clerk asked Sophie what her name was so she could call her name over the public announcement system to help reunite her with her parents. A frightened Sophie ignored the store clerk, turned her face away and proceeded to cry. 

Sophie knew she wasn’t allowed to talk to strangers, so instead of letting the store clerk help her, she waited in the aisle crying until her parents found her a few minutes later. 

This story is one example of how “stranger danger” messages can be confusing for children and potentially prevent them from getting the help they need in a public setting. 

This blog explains why the “stranger danger” approach is potentially harmful for kids and will give parents the tools to teach kids more effective ways to address safety concerns without instilling fear.

The Flaws of Teaching Kids “Stranger Danger” 

The traditional “stranger danger” approach has several potential flaws. 

1. “Stranger” Is a Tricky Concept for Kids

Understanding children’s brains and their development can help guide the way we teach them about safety. “Strangers” is a tricky concept for kids because toddlers and preschoolers don’t have logical brains; they can’t rationalize that someone might be a stranger while also being safe. Or, on the other hand, that someone they do know is behaving unsafely. Their brains can’t hold two truths at one time.

For example, when 5-year-old Sophie was lost in the department store, she couldn’t think, “This store clerk is a stranger,” AND, “She is safe to talk to.” Sophie was taught that all strangers are dangerous, so this was the one truth her brain could hold when the store clerk confronted her. Without a logical brain, her thinking is black and white – even though this particular adult was a safe person, she perceived her to be dangerous because she was a stranger. 

Teach Your Child Body Safety and Consent!

Child Sleeping

2. Suggests Familiar People Are Automatically Safe

“Stranger danger” focuses too narrowly on strangers as the sole risk to children’s safety. While strangers do pose some risk, in most cases, abuse comes from someone the child knows. Teaching children to only fear strangers gives them a false impression that familiar people are automatically safe.

3. Doesn’t Teach Kids How to Recognize Strange Behaviour

If we teach kids “stranger danger,” we are not giving them the tools to recognize or respond to unsafe situations or strange behaviour from people they do know. Without a logical brain, they can’t rationalize that friends, family or familiar faces can behave in unsafe ways. Until their brains are fully developed, we need to “act” as their logical brain. 

As well, when we teach kids that all strangers are dangerous, we haven’t prepared them to seek out help when they’re lost or interacting with safe strangers.

4. May Instill Unnecessary Anxiety

“Stranger danger” can instill unnecessary anxiety in children or inhibit normal social interactions. A child who fears all strangers may become scared to go places, talk to people, or ask for help when needed. They may avoid forming positive connections with safe adults outside the family. Instead of feeling safe in the presence of a police officer, paramedic, or nurse, a child might be feeling distressed despite being in the presence of safe persons.  

It’s important to note that some anxiety around strangers is to be expected, especially for slow-to-warm kids. Anxiety or alarm in the presence of strangers is a part of a child’s biology; kids are wired to be in close contact with familiar, trusting attachment figures. Strangers don’t have those qualities and represent the unknown. Since younger children, especially toddlers and preschoolers, still rely heavily on familiar caregivers for security, it makes sense and is developmentally normal for kids to show some caution in the presence of strangers. 

Start Teaching Kids “Strange Behaviours”

The “stranger danger” approach can make children more vulnerable because it doesn’t give them the skills they need to protect themselves from unsafe people and unsafe situations. 

While it’s important to teach children to be cautious around strangers, shifting the emphasis from “stranger danger” to watching out for “strange behaviours” can be a more effective approach because it helps children understand that most strangers are not dangerous, but they should be alert to behaviours that seem unusual or inappropriate.

The National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children refers to specific strange behaviours that can potentially be unsafe for kids. Educate your child about the possibility of these types of scenarios, and teach them that these behaviours are strange. 

  • A person offers you an item like candy, money or toys.
  • A person uses a cute animal to get your attention or make you follow them. 
  • Someone tells you there is an emergency, and you need to go with them.
  • A person is asking you for directions, for help carrying something into their house, or to look for a lost pet. 
  • A person tells you they have been sent by your parents to pick you up.
  • A person calls you beautiful, offers lots of compliments or asks to take your photo.
  • A person asks to show you something in their garage, house or vehicle. 
  • A person asks or tries to touch your private parts
  • A person asks or tries to show you pictures of people getting hurt or without clothes on

There may be instances when a young child, such as a toddler or a preschooler, may not fully grasp the concepts of “strange behaviour.” Some of the “strange behaviours” listed above may not be suitable to share with a younger child – this can be determined by caregivers using their discretion. If you don’t feel your child is ready or able to understand some of the behaviours on this list, consider adjusting or simplifying the concepts. 

The key is to build awareness, promote safety and keep the conversation going. Even if younger children can’t comprehend the nuance of these topics, it’s important to consistently communicate that they can come to you, talk to you and tell you when something doesn’t feel right, with the assurance that they won’t get in trouble. 

Related Post: Body Safety: How to Explain Private vs. Public to Kids

Create a Family Safety Plan

Just like you would create a fire escape plan to keep your family safe in your home, it’s important to create a safety plan to help your children escape unsafe situations. 

Explain Safe vs. Unsafe People 

Before you create a family safety plan, make sure to communicate to your child the difference between safe people and unsafe people:

  • Safe people will never touch or ask to touch your private parts.
  • Safe people will never show you pictures of people getting hurt or without clothes on. 
  • Safe people will never touch without your “yes.”
  • Safe people will never ask you to go into the car or home without a parent’s permission. 

Making this distinction for kids can make it easier for them to make sense of the boundaries established in your family safety plan. 

An Example of a Family Safety Plan

  • We stay within eyesight of a parent when we’re in public spaces.
  • We always check with a parent before going somewhere or changing plans. 
  • We check with a parent before accepting anything from someone you don’t know, even if they say it’s a gift or treat.
  • We don’t share personal information with strangers, like your last name, where you live or where you go to school. 
  • We don’t go into people’s homes or cars without a parent’s permission. 

It can feel tricky explaining these boundaries to our little ones in a way they understand. Here are some specific examples of ways to talk about safety plan boundaries with children.

Instead of telling them to never talk to strangers, give them specific examples of who can be trusted versus who can’t be trusted. 

“We don’t talk to people we don’t know, but if you need help, you can ask someone in a uniform, like a police officer or a store clerk. You can tell these people your first name if they ask.”

Before venturing out in a large, public space, like the neighbourhood for trick-or-treating, to the zoo, an amusement park or a shopping mall, remind your child of the boundaries. 

“Remember, if you get separated from Mom or Dad while we’re at the aquarium, you can ask anyone in a blue uniform, with name tags on their shirt, for help.”

Putting the Safety Plan Into Practice

Once you’ve established your family safety plan, the best way to ensure your child understands your boundaries and is prepared to recognize and respond to unsafe situations is to role-play strange behaviours and scenarios with your child or offer demonstrations with their toys. 

“Bobby is walking to school by himself. What should he do when someone he doesn’t know offers him candy?”

“Let’s pretend your stuff is lost in the mall; who is someone safe you can go to get help?”

“Mommy is going to pretend to be a stranger. You have to tell me if my behaviour is safe or unsafe.”

Through this process, be mindful to use appropriate language to teach tricky topics like this. You know your child best – it can help to adapt the scripts to suit their age and unique temperament. Keep in mind that it’s best to be truthful and straightforward. 

If this information is alarming for your child, offer lots of reassurance. Remind your little one that they’re safe, and it is your job to keep them safe. It can also help to ask open-ended questions to ensure your child understands what you’re teaching, and it can also help you become more aware of your child’s fears or concerns about this topic. 

“I noticed you looked worried when we were talking about unsafe people. Was there something about this topic that felt tricky for you?”

Moving Beyond Fear-Based Messages

The old “stranger danger” approach can often instill fear in kids without giving them tools for accurately recognizing danger or protecting themselves from potentially unsafe situations. 

By moving beyond fearful messages to more informed education and practical safety skills, we can help children assess situations accurately and get help from a safe person when they need it. With the right tools, kids can avoid potentially dangerous behaviours and interactions without living in fear of unfamiliar faces. 

If you’d like to take body safety and consent education one step further in your home, our Body Safety Toolkit is an engaging way to teach children ages 3-9. 

Through colouring worksheets, games and fun activities, the toolkit will help your child: 

  • Identify their personal team of safe people.
  • Learn the correct names for body parts.
  • Understand public and private spaces and body parts.
  • Say “NO” when needed.
  • Understand the difference between secrets and surprises.

Check out The Body Safety Toolkit

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    Article By

    Shannon Wassenaar
    Shannon is a Registered Psychotherapist, Content Specialist, and Highly Sensitive Parent with a passion for understanding, and promoting human relationships. Shannon holds a Bachelors degree in Psychology, and a Masters degree in Psychotherapy. She began her professional career as a trauma therapist, and continues to support families from a trauma-informed perspective. Shannon uses her knowledge and experience to create educational content for parents, and treatment plans to help families flourish. In her spare time she enjoys taking long walks, playing recreational sports, and sipping a hot latte at a local cafe.