How To Keep Your Child (And Yourself) Safe From Strangers

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It seems almost every few months a story of a child abduction saturates the news.  Amber alerts occur several times a year in many localities.  Stories of children who vanished years or even decades past re-run every so often as reminders that some families remain locked in grief even as the rest of us have moved on—all of which leaves many of us with the impression that none of our children are really safe.

Though the frequency with which these stories appear and the way the media highlights them make it seem as if child abduction happens often, according to the U.S. Department of Justice approximately 12,100 children were abducted in 1999 by a true stranger (Table 3) (as opposed to a family member or family friend), which represents only 0.02% of the 73.5 million children under the age of 18 in the U.S.  Of these only 115 were victims of “stereotypical kidnapping,” defined as “crimes that involve someone the child doesn’t know or someone of slight acquaintance, who holds the child overnight, transports the child 50 miles or more, kills the child, demands ransom, or intends to keep the child permanently.”

On the other hand, if abduction happens to your child, that statistic remains a cold comfort.  Further, a study by the Washington State’s Attorney in 1997 found 74% of children abducted and murdered by strangers are killed within three hours of being abducted.


Classically, we try to protect our children by hovering around them when we can and by teaching them “not to talk to strangers” when we can’t.  Other typical suggestions include the following:

  1. Telling your children to walk and play in groups
  2. Defining clearly what a stranger is for your children
  3. Defining clearly which strangers are safe for your children (eg-policemen, firemen, etc)
  4. Teaching your children to ask for a secret code word when a stranger approaches them with a story that you sent them
  5. Teaching your children to avoid strangers who ask for their help (adults shouldn’t need help from children for much of anything)
  6. Practice screaming with your children, “Help!”

I may be writing here far outside my area of expertise, but as the subject is well within my area of interest, I’d like to offer a counterintuitive suggestion to keep your children safe in situations where they find themselves out in the world alone and in need of help:  rather than teach them not to talk to strangers, teach them to choose the stranger they talk to themselves.

The overall proportion of people in the world who mean children harm is actually quite small, so if a child chooses a stranger at random, preferably a woman (statistics on this are hard to find, but many law enforcement authorities believe most non-family member kidnappings are committed by men) the likelihood of them choosing someone who intends them harm is far lower than if the stranger chooses them.  Though the proportion of people who offer unsolicited help to children who intend to harm them is small as well, this is also the group that likely contains all the people who do mean them harm, so it’s not quite as small as the other.  So if your child is in need of help and a stranger offers it, teach them to refuse and instead to pick someone else at random.


When faced with a would-be kidnapper or mugger, our first response is often to give in to their demands thinking it will appease them enough to keep us safe (perhaps because we’ve been trained since birth to obey authority figures).  As was suggested by the fascinating and famous Milgram experiment, most of us instinctively follow orders from authority figures even when those orders conflict with our conscience.

But your best chance to save yourself from a kidnapper (as opposed to someone trying to rob you) may actually lie in the first moment they come upon you.  The use of self-protective behaviors by women when assaulted has been shown to be associated with a decreased risk of injury (though studies done previously to this one showed the opposite association, this study was the first to examine the temporal sequencing between injuries and self-protective behaviors).

Little hard data exists to help us be certain of the best strategy to use when facing a potential abduction, but reason would suggest the following:  if someone is actually trying to abduct you, by definition, they mean you harm.  Any appeal to their better nature by means of your obedience and appeasement results probably more from a misplaced confidence in The Good Guy Contract than it does from a well-reasoned strategy to keep you safe.  Once a kidnapper has you away from others, you’re totally at his (or her) mercy.  The risk of resistance, whether at the outset of the abduction or the moment before you’re about to be raped or murdered, remains the same.  If he shoots or stabs you while you try to escape at the outset, he was likely going to shoot or stab you in the end anyway.  Most assailants aren’t prepared for immediate resistance, which increases the likelihood you’ll be able to succeed in resisting.

In order to train yourself against your instincts to submit, however, you might think about taking a little time sometime to rehearse in your mind the actions you would want to take if faced with a potential kidnapper, like professional skiers often do before taking a run down a mountain.  Whether your resistance takes the form of attempting to escape or of fighting back physically, prepare yourself to respond with anything but obedience.

Given that most of us won’t ever experience an attempted kidnapping either of our children our ourselves, it might seem foolish or excessive to even think about this.  But both things do happen to people just like you and me.  And as one of my old medical school mentors once said to me, life is best navigated in all areas with the 5 P’s kept firmly in mind:  Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance.  Everyone, please stay safe.

Next WeekIn Search Of The Mythical “Best”

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  • I’m with you, Dr. Alex, on how important it is to address the issue of stranger safety. However, my reasons are a little different. For example, I feel that teens are much more apt to be accosted by ill-intentioned strangers than small children are. Drug dealers, sexual predators and other bad characters work diligently to find ways to target teens, yet it’s far too late for parents to start teaching stranger-avoidance tactics after puberty. The only real way for teens to stay safe until they’ve had a chance to develop judgment skills is if they’ve already fully internalized the behaviors you mention here. In fact, I submit that it’s harder for adults to figure out how to run or resist in a negative situation if they didn’t learn young how to develop a healthy (not open or xenophobic, of course) wariness of potentially dangerous situations.

  • There’s an excellent book, several years old now, which gives useful ideas and anecdotes about this issue: The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker.

    De Becker grew up in a dangerous universe of his parent’s making, later became a policeman and then a security specialist for individuals needing protection. His advice is clear and direct and common sensical. He discusses many strategies and ideas which made perfect sense to me, but I had never thought of on my own. Most of all, his book made me feel safer in my own world.

    Thank you for all of your good work—you also help me to feel saner and safer in my own world.

    Jean: I think I’ve actually heard of the book but haven’t read it. Thanks for the reference and the compliment.


  • I have a twist on this situation! We learned the hard way that my son was wired to resist abduction by running and fighting. Two undercover officers misidentified my 12-year-old son while he was playing alone in the park. They attempted to arrest him, calling him by the name of a 17-year-old boy he had never met, but who was wanted for a burglary. Because they were in regular clothes with badges on their hips and driving an unmarked sedan, my son, naturally, was terrified and fought as hard as he could to not be taken. Later, as he faced assault on an officer charges, we learned that the safety training video used in his elementary school specifically addressed the issue of kidnappers pretending to be policemen. I also learned that this incident of mistaken identity while arresting children is more common than one might think. My son won in court, but it was a costly ordeal financially and emotionally. I don’t know how our safety training could have prepared him for that sort of event.

  • Good info, Alex. Will have a mental run through tonight!

  • Another vote for Gavin DeBecker’s book. He specifically recommends that children choose a woman for help if they are ever lost or in trouble, just as you did. Also tips for women.

    Thanks for your enlightening columns.

  • A somewhat related musing on the consequences of this concern about abductions can be found here:

    An extract: “The helmeting and monitoring, the corralling of children into certified zones of safety, is in part the product of the Consumer Reports mentality, the generally increased consciousness, in America, of safety and danger. To this one might add the growing demands of insurance actuarials and the national pastime of torts. But the primary reason for this curtailing of adventure, this closing off of Wilderness, is the increased anxiety we all feel over the abduction of children by strangers; we fear the wolves in the Wilderness. This is not a rational fear; in 1999, for example, according to the Justice Department, the number of abductions by strangers in the United States was 115. Such crimes have always occurred at about the same rate; being a child is exactly no more and no less dangerous than it ever was. What has changed is that the horror is so much better known. At times it seems as if parents are being deliberately encouraged to fear for their children’s lives, though only a cynic would suggest there was money to be made in doing so.”

    Jonathan: Thanks for the link. I always enjoy Michael Chabon.


  • I think discernment is the most important thing to teach children, how to read people for good/bad intentions and how to use their instincts to determine who to engage/avoid. It’s important to have them practice approaching people before they actually need to do so. That way you can monitor their choices to see how well they read people. It’s also important to train them so that they are aware of their environment. Whenever they feel an intent to approach them, they should decide whether the person is safe or not. It is much easier to avoid people that way rather than from a close distance. They need to feel okay avoiding people who are dangerous or just feel wrong.

    jstele: Practicing those skills is an excellent idea.


  • I want to congratulate you for your interesting and reliable blog, before replying with a minor criticism.

    You write “statistics on this are hard to find, but many law enforcement authorities believe most non-family member kidnappings are committed by men.” Well, profiling based on sound statistics is hard enough to swallow, but profiling based on mere “belief” is intolerable. And profiling it is, make no mistake.

    I live in Japan—a nice, but sometimes a bit xenophobic country—and once something disquieting happened to me. As I was walking along on narrow road, a little girl—the only other soul around—playing with her anti-kidnapping buzzer made it ring. Luckily, nobody came out to her “rescue,” because if somebody had, they would have immediately misinterpreted the situation as: male middle-aged foreigner (standard description for bad guy) molesting little girl. Given that children’s accounts are often unreliable, as they seem to tend to please those who question them, and given that Japanese police have the nasty habit of convicting almost everyone they arrest—as Amnesty International has been pointing out for many years—I could have easily ended up losing my job, expelled from the country, and labeled forever as “child molester.”

    By the way, though I am not able to point to the sources right now, I know there are experiments comparing children and chimpanzee that suggest an innate tendency in humans to obey to authority.

    Andrea: Point well taken.


  • As you point out, it’s not just children. I was in Israel on a kibbutz with two female friends, all of us in our young 20’s way back in ’72-73. A West German young men’s soccer team was staying nearby, and my friends went to a game and were invited back “for supper” at the team’s dorm. “Supper?” I thought, “there’s no kitchen or dining room in the dorm.” “Yes, supper,” they replied, wide-eyed innocents. I figured I’d better go along.

    We arrived, entered the dorm, and found the team and coaches sitting around in boxers and socks, playing cards. No supper in sight, and funny thing, the exit doors were now locked. “Open the door,” my friends said, “let us out,” and the coaches just laughed. I did not like this one bit. My friends had blank stares, the deer-in-the-headlights look. It was like they were more or less frozen.

    My reaction was (edited for a family blog), “The hell you say,” and I dragged my friends to a window (only one floor), opened it, and pushed them out, all the while giving the team and coaches some withering comments in two languages (neither of which they spoke, but I think they got the message). I was prepared to break a window with a chair, if necessary. A couple of guys followed us out the window, but backed off when confronted.

    Why do people fall for such plays? Is it the Good Guy thing? It seemed so transparent to me. Why do people freeze? I hear what you say about authority. But where does this helplessness in the face of baleful intent come from?

    Sara: A disbelief that people could actually be so cruel? I don’t know. Even now, reading this story, part of me is simply amazed, despite all the cruelty I’ve witnessed and heard about in my life.