How can I teach my toddler about strangers without totally freaking him out?

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Photo by RedHand, used under Creative Commons license.
The sexual abuse scandal at Penn State has me thinking a lot about how to help my son understand “good touch” and “bad touch” and other related issues. He’s only two, and I don’t want to scare my son, or get him overly paranoid about “stranger danger,” or cultivate in him unnecessary anxiety. As much as is reasonable, I want him to retain his sense of the world as a (mostly) good place with (mostly) good people in it.

I would love to hear from offbeat parents out there — how have you helped prepare your children for potential abuse scenarios without scaring them to death or creating unnecessary anxiety that the world is a really terrible place and only their parents deserve trust? — Mary

Comments on How can I teach my toddler about strangers without totally freaking him out?

  1. I’m not a parent (yet) but I work with sexual abuse survivors and am a survior myself. The way I plan to approach it with my (hypothetical as of yet) kid is by making sure my child has an understanding of their body and body parts, and knows s/he can control who touches it. Many people teach their children ‘head, nose, belly button’ etc. but there are also penis’ and vaginas to learn about too. Children learn at an early age when it’s not OK to talk about something, especially when their parents evasively refer to these body parts as ‘privates’ or other euphemisms. If someone touches them, anywhere, without their permission, they should have the language to explain what happened, without shame. Also, your question refers to worries about strangers but 90%of child sex
    abuse survivors are abused by someone known to the child and family. Darkness to Light is an excellent resource on preventing child sex abuse.

    • I think that is important to teach this euphemism “private parts” for penis, vagina, butt, nipples, testicles. Especially if you plan on sending your children to school where teachers and staff will say “private parts”. For some social circles, using the names of the penis, vagina, etc. make people really uncomfortable, especially survivors of sexual abuse.
      My oldest got in trouble in Kindergarten for using the word penis, even though he was referring to his being uncomfortable in that area which required a Dr. visit. I told the school that he has chosen to use the word and that in our family we don’t feel that it is wrong. The school reiterated that the other students were disturbed by this. My oldest was ridiculed at that school for our families choices. I see the point behind it all, I don’t condone the attack on my family, and we eventually moved that summer anyways so he went to a different school for the 1st grade.
      I think it’s important to teach our children both the names and the euphemism. They will choose what they feel is most comfortable for them. Both of our boys refer to the parts as they actually are where as many of their friends do not.

      • Best practice to prevent abuse it to teach the kids the correct names. Teachers should know this by now and need to suck it up and deal with being a little uncomfortable. We do also refer to them collectively as their “private areas” and that no one besides parents and the doctor should be touching them where their underwear covers (I do realize that some parents and some doctors are abusers but there only so much you can do). I know a lot of people talk about not letting anyone touch you in your “bathing suit area” but since my kids are super fair they wear long sleeved rashguards and knee length shorts at the beach/pool so that doesn’t work for us.

  2. I always just told my daughter that if she felt uncomfortable around someone that she would never have to be alone with that person. Most kids are not molested by strangers but by someone they know. Fathers, brothers, uncles, friends of the family, coaches, etc. Kids have pretty good radars, so I told her over and over again if she felt uncomfortable around someone that was all she had to tell me and she would never have to be around that person (male or female) alone ever.

    • Just a thought simply being uncomfortable may not signal you to danger. I was molested by people I deeply trusted when I was a child. I never felt uncomfortable around them prior to abuse only after. This isn’t to say that you can’t trust anybody or child’s instincts. This is simply put out there so that parents can be aware. I would say be aware, though not overly suspicious, of your child’s moods and other people. If something seems amiss look into that, but simply assuming that you or child will sense danger isn’t a sure fire thing. Make sure your children are comfortable talking to you and that they have words to explain what happened. Let them know that certain areas and even certain types of kissing are not appropriate. And yes it is important to try not to shame your kids as well. I agree that it is a good idea to teach kids medically correct terms and euphamisms. Let them know that inappropriate actions adults make are not their fault. Lastly, as silly as this may seem tell your child you do not blame and that it is safe to talk to you and mean it!

  3. Wow, what a great question! I wish I had some advice, but I mostly just want to applaud the question and hope for answers myself. Also, what about teaching young kids when (if ever) hitting/fighting back in such situations is okay? Any thoughts? Thanks for opening up the topic, Mary!

    • We teach our kids that if someone is touching you in an uncomfortable way it is violence. If the person doesn’t stop when you ask (You hold up your hand like “stop sign” and say “STOP!” very loud) and if there is no one around to help you, you most definitely fight back. Hit, kick, yell, run. (We also teach that this behavior is only to be used in emergencies of violence where there is no help.)
      Run to a safe place and find an adult and ask them to call the police.
      There are places all around our town that are “safe places” for children. This organization uses a symbol of two hands holding on a large yellow sign. The public transit system is considered a “safe place” so that the children can have a chance of traveling away from where the attack was. The bus driver notifies the station and the bus is met by a security guard once it gets to a main station.
      I would look for and teach your older children about organizations like these.
      I wouldn’t worry a toddler with such intensities. Keep it simple with them.

  4. I would like to note that if you are an excitable person/parent, it may help to have other family members/friends who the child knows to help in these efforts. Make sure that the ones helping in these efforts know and are willing to stick to your wants and needs for this learning experience. Also, this will take years and change with their age.
    The Penn State abuse is horrid and not common. However, we do live in a world that is over sexing media and treating our teens as beacons of consumer abuse. There is abuse in different forms everywhere these days. It has become a difficult world to explain to my children.
    For toddlers keep it simple: We don’t go with people we don’t know. It’s Ok to wave and say hi to others. Make sure you can always see Mommy/Daddy/Guardian/Family when we are out and about and try to always hold our hand. It’s important to welcome our friends into our home and greet them nicely but we don’t want our new friends walking inside without Mommy/Daddy/Guardian/Family. Hugs are nice from the people we love but we don’t touch private parts.
    We made sure that our Bubs new that only Mommy, Daddy and the Dr. are the ones who touch private parts and that is only for cleaning and medicine. We never leave our Bubs in the Dr.s alone.
    Just keep it simple.

    • Both my girls are still young, 3 and 5, so I think its the age that depends as well. I have one of those kids that literally would crawl into the lap of any person at the park, if she was so inclined. So I taught her simply to ask first, but I was never far behind and watched like a hawk.
      They aren’t necessarily old enough to be left alone with many people, and even those, I am picky about.

      For example, I won’t let a man watch my girls, ever, without me there. Their dad is the only exception. I was molested by someone close to me (my mom’s best friend and sometimes babysitter) so am less worried about strangers. Teaching them “not to show your buns or panties) to anyone has been a sad but necessary lesson (as my kids are prone to rolling around on the ground in dresses). Teaching them about privacy in the bathroom has been a lesson as of late, and I will politely turn around while they do their business if they request it.

      Also, I have always taught them if they get lost (which has happened in target, twice) to find a mom with a stroller/kids. I trust moms over workers, and yes, there’s always a risk but just about every mom with a stroller I know would cut down mountains for a lost kid. Moms rock.

  5. We don’t teach stranger danger (and I was never taught it as a child either). Statistically children are more likely to be abused by someone that they know and I personally think that it’s important that my son feel that he can approach a stranger for help if he were to get lost.

    My son is 4, we’ve avoided the “don’t talk to strangers” mindset and instead have told him who he should talk to if he were to become lost or need help (if, for whatever reason, mummy or daddy aren’t there). These include police officers and men or women who have children with them.

    As far as abuse is concerned, we’ve taught him that no one can touch him unless he says it is ok, even family members, doctors etc. We also don’t use silly words for anatomy, but we use the correct terms because I feel that it is important in empowering him to be able to say no.

    Aside from that, I can only hope that he’s never put in that position but if he were in a position that he felt was wrong that he would feel able to tell me about it.

    • “Stranger Danger” is absolute garbage. Our school system has a sexual abuse prevention curriculum that starts in pre-school and it’s pretty great except that it still includes “Stranger Danger” so every year I have to deprogram my kids from that part. Luckily (?) both of my kids have been helped by strangers when we briefly lost track of them (a single man both times!) so I have concrete examples for them. Absolutely teach your kids not to wander off with some rando but kids have died because they were so afraid of strangers that they didn’t ask for help. We teach that most strangers a good people who will help you if you ask. We do stress that if you’re lost the best thing to do is find someone in a uniform (police officer, lifeguard etc) or someone who has kids with them because they’re the most likely to help. This is more about single adults being scared to help kids because they’re afraid someone will accuse them of something (not an unfounded fear) than because a single adult is likely to do anything wrong.

  6. I think it’s important to let kids know we support and validate them when they DO express feeling uncomfortable with being with someone or with someone touching them. It’s easy to keep tickling a toddler when they say “No” because they’re laughing, or scold them when they refuse to hold Grandma’s hand. Obviously there’s no danger of abuse in these situations, but this is where kids learn either that they have control over what happens to their body, or that grownups do.

    • I agree, completely. I have tried to teach my niece that she may always refuse attention- hugs, kisses, hand holding, us taking pictures of her, playing with us, or whatever except in certain cases (“we are crossing the street, you must hold my hand for safety, you may let go when we get to the sidewalk”, “This is a crowded place, I’m going to hold you right now, you may get down when we find a clearing”, that sort of thing). Sometimes I don’t want to stop playing tickle monster, but if she says stop, I have to. It was confusing to me as a child when people would say ‘nobody may touch you without your permission’ but then my uncle would tickle me until I puked.

    • This book was given to me by another mom. It’s a very powerful resource and as a former court-mandated reporter, I highly recommend adding this to your library. 🙂

  7. I’m going to echo other people here when I say that we don’t teach “stranger danger” because it’s not strangers who are the most likely perps — it’s trusted authority figures.

    We teach that they have the right to say no to people touching them *anywhere* — even their parents. If they say “no” when I’m tickling them, I stop. If they don’t want to kiss or hug, I don’t force them to. etc. “We’re now working on asking permission before touching other people.

    • This is something I believe in very strongly. How are our children ever supposed to learn to honour their own boundaries when we teach them that they are available to adults for certain types of touching against their will, but not arbritarily-decided others? That’s not going to make sense to a child.
      I believe no-one – not family members, not friends – have any right to anyone’s personal space without their enthusiastic consent, and why should children have less rights than adults in this area?
      I am heartily in favour of teaching children how to politely state when they don’t want to give Uncle Joe a hug, or grandma a kiss, and to have those statements respected.


      • I agree. Children should be able to express when they feel uncomfortable. However, I do remember my mom hugging and holding me when I was really upset/angry and shouted ‘no, I don’t want to be hugged. Let me go!’ She would hold on to me and say calming words. It ended a lot of tantrums and helped me in dealing with emotions. I look back at it as a positive thing. How would you differentiate?

        • This is a really good question. I haven’t finished reading replies yet, so if someone covered this already, I apologize. If it were me (and this is coming from no experience as a parent myself, so it’s just an idea) I would differentiate by determining whether the anger was coming from the physical contact itself (i.e., hugging your happy child and they become upset) or if it was coming from another place (i.e., the child is having a tantrum over a lost toy and is saying “Don’t touch me” because they are just freaking out.) I know my brother uses hug therapy similar to what your mom did in those latter situations with my niece and nephew and it works really well, but if they were just hanging out and the kids didn’t want to be in physical contact, he would never push it. It seems like a pretty good system to me.

  8. I maybe have a different take, as not only was I molested as a 4/5 yo, but my oldest daughter was molested and had parts of her cut off, while she was at daycare when she was a little over 14 months old.
    My number one thing, is KNOW YOUR CHILD. If you child is not acting right, if you just feel something is wrong. Then BELIEVE YOURSELF. My mom felt something was wrong, but never investigated, so I was molested for almost 9 months. I felt something was wrong, and my daughter was molested for one day. She couldn’t tell me in words that something was wrong. But I paid attention.

    #2. I’m in agreement with the people above who teach their children actual names for their parts AND calling them in collective ‘privates’.
    As soon as your children are old enough to comprehend you, you let them know that it’s ok for someone to help them wipe, or ok for someone to help them go to the bathroom, as long as the child is fine with it. It is ok for their parents and doctor to LOOK at their privates to check and make sure ‘they aren’t sick’ but it isn’t ok for people to touch your privates unless it’s for bathroom purposes or you are AT the doctors. I’ve got two daughters who are hardcore about doctors, and have hit/kicked/punched, so there is no way they’d have given permission for any medical treatment. It’s my job as the parent to decide if the treatment needs to happen, regardless of whether child wants a shot/stitches/medicine on their privates.

    You just keep repeating this to them whenever you get the chance, Just like Dora, you repeat things constantly to help them remember. This has helped not only from keeping my children from being molested (a 7yo girl in our neighborhood was molested by a cousin, and she tried it on my sons, (6 and 4) who shot her down and then told me)

    But the labeling of ‘privates’ as such, helps when kids get to that exploring age and they are wanting to touch themselves all the time. This is where you teach them that they are called privates for a reason, because you are supposed to keep them private.

  9. The rule in our family is that our kids can tell us anything, even if it’s a ‘secret’ and they won’t get in trouble. If they tell us a secret, it stays a secret unless the police and/or other parents need to be involved. Our daughters know the technical terms for their own bodies but we use the euphamism ‘bits’ as a catch-all term so as not to cause issues with parents who refrain from the use of those words and so that we don’t have the joy of two little girls shouting out various bodypart names when we’re out shopping. Our girls know that they don’t have to show affection via physical means, that others aren’t allowed to touch them without permission and a damn good reason, and our eldest (5) knows that she’s not old enough to make that decision until she’s at least 16 (age of consent here). We’ve explained these things at an age-appropriate level when we’ve been asked or when learning opportunities have presented themselves.
    We’re trying for a good balance of information, enough to be helpful and keep them safe, but not enough to scare them and damage their psyche.

  10. The biggest piece is that it’s not likely a stranger to fear. It’s more likely someone that is close to the child like a family member, friend, teacher, coach, daycare provider, doctor, etc. It’s usually someone that the child and/or family trust.

    There are great resources on prevention, including how to talk with your children. First, many state-based child sexual abuse prevention organizations offer parents resources on how to talk with kids about this issue, so google your states advocacy organization. If you want a couple of quick reads, go to

    Also, I wrote about my own experience on my blog at It’s the Black Widow post. In my case it was a teacher, and the goal of my post is to give a snapshot into the experience of how a pedophile can be seemingly trustworthy to the entire community. It’s not graphic if you’re interested in getting a better understanding of the grooming phase.

  11. While on this topic, I think it’s VERY important to note that you HAVE to teach children the proper name for their genitalia, and not a nickname. If they are molested and it is brought to court, if a child does not say “penis” or “vagina”, and instead says “monkey” “wee wee” or something like that, the case can be dismissed. It happened to a friend of mine’s child. So they need to know the exact name for the body part.

    • My mom taught me and my siblings the proper terms as soon as we could say them, citing a girl who went to an adult saying someone was touching her “cookies” and the adult, not being privy to the euphemism, told her she should share.

  12. I have a five and two year old. We use other names for their privates because of the school thing. They don’t need to know yet. Personally I think two is a little young because my two year old only stays with daycare, approved sitters and family members. All of whom I trust explicitely. Of course that doesn’t always say it won’t ever happen there as proved by earlier poster. My five year old is starting to learn about good touch bad touch at school. Kindergarten is the first time he’s even walked himself anywhere alone. He’s always been with me or someone I explicitely trust. Unfortunately people are sick and you can’t always police everywhere. I work with the mentally ill and many of them have been vistims as well as perpertrators. I know how bad things can happen at any time. I do the best I can to shield my children and pray a lot!

  13. As someone who lives in an area with a high amount of sex offenders (I still don’t know if it was a good or bad idea to look that up), I have to say that I kind of cringe at NOT teaching my kids “stranger danger”.
    I know that most abuse comes from people who are not strangers. I get that, but there is still something nagging at me that does not want my kid to ever talk to a stranger if I’m not around. Call it paranoia, overprotectiveness, worry, whatever.
    Maybe because it was so drilled into me as a child. I grew up in a small town and my sister and I walked every where from a relatively young age, so if we ran across someone we didn’t know (rare) and they were trying to talk to us for something more than directions, we booked it. My mom was attacked and raped by a stranger when she was young so that’s how she taught us. I think I’ll follow her lead and err on the side of caution.

    • It might make you feel a bit better to check out some of the stuff written about “sex offenders” on Free Range Kids. I won’t get into it here, but the author has some interesting information about how effective the registry is and about whether or not a lot of these people should really be registered as sex offenders. I haven’t personally cross-checked her facts because I don’t live in the US and don’t yet have children, but reading it might just give you a bit more peace of mind.

  14. I seem to be behind on this one. Mine are 3.5 and 2, and I hadn’t ever really thought about this. Some good food for thought here, and I think I’ll talk to my boyfriend about this issue when he comes home tonight.

  15. I think it does partly depend on where you live; as a previous commenter said, in a small town, it’s much less likely that a child would even see a stranger, and if said stranger wanted to interact with the kid, that would be pretty suspicious. On the other hand, in a big city, there are lots of strangers, the vast majority of whom are benign, or even helpful if the need arises. I think the Free Range Kids advice of “it’s okay to talk to strangers, but never go off with one,” is far more sensible in a bigger town/city environment.

  16. There is an excellent children’s book called My Body is Private by Linda Walvoord Girard. It deals with this topic really well.
    And to echo what others have said, “Stranger Danger” is a misnomer. Statistically, children are much more likely to be abused by someone they know, so encourage your child to know what appropriate boundaries are (which body areas are private) and encourage them to stand up for themselves.

  17. I don’t have kids, but I do teach Grade 1, so I’ve had the “stranger” talk with lots of 5 an 6 year olds.

    I start out by talking about how most strangers are not dangerous, but since we can’t tell who is a good person or who is bad person by looking at them, that we need to be careful, and pay attention to the situation.

    There are times when it is quite alright to talk to stranger: If you’re buying something in a store, if there’s a Supply Teacher, etc. Those are times when it is normal to talk to a stranger. What is not normal is for a stranger to come up and start talking to a kid they don’t know, without a reason, or to ask the kid to help them. Adults know that kids are not supposed to talk to strangers, so they should not be trying to talk to kids, unless there is a specific reason, for example it is part of the adult’s job.

    Also, adults should not need help from kids. Sometimes strangers who were not good people have asked kids for help finding a lost pet, or for directions to go somewhere and then have hurt the kids when they try to help.

    Throughout the talk I ry to reassure the kids that strangers hurting kids almost never happens, but that we have this talk so they know what to do if something does happen.

    Then I explain to the kids that if a stranger tries to make them to go with them, that they need to make a lot of noise. Yell that they don’t know the person, and even to shout 911.

  18. I coordinated a county-wide program in Southern California that responded to cases of adult and child sexual assault. The best book out there, and one that I read with my three step kids, is called “A Very Touching Book.” It’s not into scaring kids, but does address that secret touch can happen with someone that you care about (avoiding the ‘stranger danger’ myth), while still being sex positive. I highly recommend it!

  19. Hi everybody!

    This was my posting and I just now realized it went up on Offbeat Mama, and I really enjoyed reading everybody’s responses.
    I agree that “Stranger Danger” is often a misnomer. The person to whom I am closest who was sexually abused suffered at the hands of a trusted person and authority figure. I guess I used “Stranger danger” because that is an additional concern of mine — my son’s general comfort around strangers, which is mostly good, but….. I agree, however, that that is a separate issue in many ways from molestation, which is usually by a known and trusted person.

    These book recommendations are great — thanks to you all! And I especially grateful for the suggestion that tickling, forced kissing and hugs, etc, from grandparents and other family members can send a bad message — your body is not yours, and your family members can control access to it against your will. It seems harmless enough that my mother really begs my son to kiss her sometimes when he doesn’t want to do so, but now I see what mixed signals this can send and I will talk to her about just backing off.

    The biggest challenge for me, I think, is that sometimes I do force my two year old’s body to do things he doesn’t want to do. This is rare, but sometimes I pick him up and carry him upstairs for a diaper change whether he wants it or not because it HAS to happen, and sometimes I have to just dress him even if he is screaming (this is after lots of choices given, etc). This is rare but sometimes we just have to leave and he needs a clean diaper and a shirt! I also struggle with what to do when he is in a hysterical meltdown (fortunately not that often). I am a person who wants to be left alone when upset and gets very bothered by forced hugs, etc, so I want to be sensitive to being there for him, but not forcing myself on him. What I try to do is just say “let me know if you need a hug” and I just sit there with him and keep him company.

    Anyway, thanks everybody for the excellent feedback and suggestions!

  20. We have foster kids. We call our parts either girl or boy parts. We have a 4, 3, 18mo old and an 8mo old.
    If one of the kids mention their boy or girl parts everyone parents, teachers, or the doctor knows exactly what they are talking about.
    We tell them that we don’t show our naked bodies to people but that is usually mentions at the pool or at home when friends are visiting. We tell them that stop means stop and no matter what tickling or any kind of rough housing stops asap. We make sure they know that the only people allowed to touch their private areas are mommy, and daddy(ie us), gma , and the doctor or the nurse for medical reasons only.
    We take any comment about people possibly touching them very seriously. We listen. One of the most important things I can think of is to listen to all the little things your child says. If they have been hurt they will tell you a million details in the way they say things.

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