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Parents must talk about safety, not fear

Three women were held captive in this home in Cleveland.

Getty Images

Three women were held captive in this home in Cleveland.

The headlines are scary. What we don't know about what happened in a house in Cleveland is even scarier.

Once again, after 9/11, after Newtown, Conn., after other reality nightmares, parents are wondering what to tell their kids and how to protect them.

"I just didn't talk to her because I didn't want to scare her," said Michele Jefferson, St. Petersburg mother of a 10-year-old daughter.

"I'm more aware of his whereabouts every second and who his friends are," Yolanda McCloud told a reporter, referring how she has parented her 9-year-old son since the Cleveland kidnappings came to light. "Even when you were walking over here toward him I was thinking 'Why is she getting near my son?' "

This month, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children is encouraging parents to talk to their kids about safety with a campaign called "Take 25."

In honor of Missing Children's Day on May 25, the organization urges parents to talk to their children for 25 minutes about ways they can be safer.

"Parents need to prepare them by openly talking about safety dos and don'ts … and helping them recognize danger," said St. Petersburg child psychiatrist Kim Costello.

"You can make them knowledgeable about certain things without making them fearful of the world. Don't say it in a panic state," she advised.

Just as we warn our kids about the dangers of crossing a street or playing with matches, tell them calmly that some people are bad and there are things they can do to avoid them, Costello said.

Kristin Maier, director of the Child Life department at All Children's Hospital, has a good rule of thumb.

"If they ask a question they are ready to hear an answer," she said. "After the (Newtown) school shooting and Boston bombing, I recommended parents should bring it up because kids are going to hear about it at school. In this situation, I would probably wait and see if your child brings it up."

Asking a question, however, doesn't mean children need to know the full story.

"Be honest, but be minimal," said Maier, whose department counsels children with medical problems. "You could say, 'There are a few people in the world who are bad, but most people are good.' Reassure them they are safe, but give them the tools they would need in a certain situation."

While we may think we are protecting children by hiding them from the news, ignoring it could hurt them more.

"If they hear about what happened in Cleveland and their parents are like 'We don't need to talk about that you are fine,' that creates more fear," she said.

Gary Crawley, director of Baycare Behavioral Health in Brooksville, also stressed a calm, steady voice goes a long way in reassuring children.

"But I think parents shouldn't just blow off their kids and say 'It's safe here. This happened in Cleveland and that's a long way away.' That's not very reassuring."

Teaching a child to dial 911 is a simple step that makes them feel safer, he said.

St. Petersburg mom Danielle Haggar has a different perspective than most. She was the last person to see her friend Kim alive 32 years ago in Portland, Ore. They walked home from school together, parted ways and the high school junior was found strangled two days later.

Haggar has held a tighter grip on her middle school son and daughter because of that, she said.

"I know we have to let them go. Not letting them go raises fear in their lives," Haggar said.

She told her daughter about the Cleveland kidnappings and shared the story of her friend in Portland for the first time.

Costello, who shares five grown daughters with her husband, gets why parents can be overprotective.

"As a parent you think 'Oh my gosh. I'm never letting my kids go anywhere,' " she said. "Helicoptering a child is never going to have good results. At one point in their life they are going to be exposed to the real world."

Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or

Tips to help children protect themselves

Teach your kids these tips so they can protect themselves:

• If anyone tries to grab you, kick, make a scene, yell "This person is trying to take me."

• If you think someone is following you in a car, run in the opposite direction the car is facing and quickly go to an adult you can trust.

• Stay in well-lit areas. Never take shortcuts through alleys or go to isolated areas.

• Grownups don't need to ask children for help with directions or other questions.

• Even if someone knows your name, if you don't know him or her you can't trust them.

• Always walk with another child or stay in a group on outings or at the bus stop.

• It's more important to be safe than be polite.

More tips for parents:

• Never leave a child alone in a car whether it is running or not.

• Take note of anyone who gives your child a lot of attention or gifts.

Source: National Center for Missing & Exploited Children

Parents must talk about safety, not fear 05/09/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 10, 2013 12:36am]
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