Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How do I encourage my children to be cautious of strangers but not terrified of them?

The dangers of the world are all around us.  You can see it in every newscast, newspaper and magazine; well pretty much everywhere you go.  The days of sending our children outside after school and not hearing from them until dinner are unfortunately long gone in most places.  We want to keep our children safe from harm but we all know that we cannot be with them 24/7.  It is our goal to train them to keep themselves safe, be aware of their surroundings and stay away from people that should not be trusted.

This is a wise and worthy goal, but it is possible for us to go too far and make our children paranoid of every adult, animal and child that they come close to.  So how can we help our children develop a healthy and cautious view of the world around?
All children have different temperaments and some may be more sensitive to strangers than others.  But we can start teaching them to not be frightened of every new person by having calm and even emotions when we meet someone new.  Our body language could be sending our children mixed signals.  It is amazing how easily even young children can pick up on our physical cues in these kinds of situations.  When we meet someone new we should be cautious without becoming tense and scared.  If we do our children are more likely to be cautious but friendly as well. 

Knowing that our children pick up on our cues, we should introduce them to new people but not make them get close to or even give a handshake to people they are uncomfortable with.  By allowing our children to choose when and how they show affection, we are reinforcing their sense of self.  This will help them gain the self-confidence to judge for themselves who is safe and who is not quite right. 

Children are born being able to evaluate when something feels right and when it feels wrong.  Little children naturally run to the safety of parents when they hear a loud noise because they sense the noise represents danger. Far too often this natural sense of self is picked apart when we do not understand, reassure and support their assessment of the situation.  What we end up doing is making them act in a way that makes them uncomfortable.  This will eventually lead to a child who has been conditioned to not trust his or her gut. I think we can all agree, there will come a time we want our children to make the right decisions about who is trustworthy and who is not. 

The way to get our children to trust their gut is to validate the feeling they have.  This means that we tell our children that it is okay for them to be afraid and that you understand it. We don’t tell our children why they should NOT be afraid of it and we especially do not say that there is nothing to be afraid of.  That tells our children there is something wrong with him or her.   

“Ellie, I can tell that you are uncomfortable with that man I introduced you to.  Meeting new people can be stressful because we don’t know if they will be nice to us or mean.  You need to be respectful to new people, but you do not need to get close to them or shake their hand if you feel worried.” 

Your children may react in an anxious way when meeting someone, but they will take their biggest cues from your reaction to the person.  By validating the fear and showing your children how to treat people considerately your child will learn how to be aware of the world without being terrified of it. 

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