“Stranger – Danger” and empowering children to be safe

For a couple of years an A3 poster had been decorating one of the walls in my children’s school. It had been put together by some pupils a while ago. It was placed in the KS1 area and with its vivid colours and charming children’s illustration was impossible not to catch your eye.

“Stranger Danger” it exclaimed.

If you have school aged children you have probably come across the same message. Up until recently similar posters, all with the same short but catchy message, adorned every school in the UK.

When I first saw it, I felt uncomfortable. I am trying to raise my children to be confident human beings, who can see the best in people. I do not want them to be scared of the world and I would like them to feel safe outside our house. So I felt that this message did contradict the values and attitudes I was trying to instill.

I talked to my daughter’s teacher whom I respect deeply. She had been teaching for over 25 years at the time and was known to have a down to earth approach. She shared my concern but “Stranger – Danger” was there to stay. She could not help.

I felt upset. I thought about the message again. Are all strangers dangerous? Should the children be scared of strangers or rather be equipped with the skills to differentiate between safe and dangerous situations? And more importantly should they have the vocabulary to talk about their feelings and the situation to a network of people they trust either in the family or at school? How can children know that something is not quite right after all?

And then I realized why that poster bothered me. What the “stranger – danger” approach fails to tackle is empowering the children to identify that they are in an unsafe situation and then articulate their feelings and seek help.

As I found out later, the message is also misleading and does not rely on hard data.

The statistics tell a different story about the risks to children. According to the NSPCC, over 90% of children who experienced sexual abuse, were abused by someone they knew. While more than one in three children (34%) who experienced contact sexual abuse by an adult did not tell anyone else about it. Four out of five children (82.7%) who experienced contact sexual abuse from a peer did not tell anyone else about it.

In addition 12% of under 11s, 18% of 11-17s and 24% of 18-24s had been exposed to domestic abuse between adults in their homes during childhood.

It is sad, but it is true. Children are usually abused by someone they know. Some of the victims may not realize at the time that they are being harmed and they lack the vocabulary to talk about their feelings.

So for some children a stranger may indeed be a safe person to talk – the person on the other end of the childline, the police officer, the neighbour.

Fortunately, things are beginning to change. A few months ago I took part in a training day for my job called Protective Behaviours. This programme, which now runs in many schools, aims to tackle these questions and equip the children with the skills to identify unsafe situations and people as well as with the vocabulary to talk about it to someone in their network of safe contacts. This could be anyone from a family member (not necessarily the parents) to friends or someone in school.

protective behaviours

There are two themes in Protective Behaviours:

  • We all have the right to feel safe all the time
  • We can talk with someone about anything, even if it’s awful or small

The strength of the programme is that it engages with the parents as well. Parents and carers are kept informed about what is being done in school and are provided with appropriate age-related material to continue some of the work at home if they wish.

As from September 2013 I was really pleased to see that the “stranger –danger” poster had finally been removed from the school. Instead a new bright display has been created covering a whole wall highlighting the basic principles of the “Protective Behaviours” programme. The children across year groups are being taught the basic principles of feeling safe and protecting themselves and have the opportunity to create their network of safe contacts. That is people that they feel safe with and trust that they can turn to and explain their concerns.

As the old saying goes – “Better late than never”


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