Why “stranger safety” can be tricky for kids who learn and think differently

By Lexi Walters Wright

Why “stranger safety” can be tricky for kids who learn and think differently, stranger meeting a child

At a glance

  • Kids with learning and thinking differences may encounter many unfamiliar adults like doctors and therapists — so “stranger danger” lessons may be confusing.

  • Specific issues like impulsivity and trouble picking up on social cues can make dealing with strangers complicated.

  • Your child may find discussions about stranger safety to be scary, but there are ways to help conversations go more smoothly.

Teaching kids about personal safety is as important as teaching them to read or write. But it’s not enough to talk just about “stranger danger.” Experts now encourage parents to teach their kids about “stranger safety.” And that includes staying safe around adults they know and don’t know.

It’s even more important to get that message across to kids with learning and thinking differences. Having certain challenges may make them more vulnerable than their peers and less likely to understand and follow the rules of stranger safety. Learn why — and what you can do to help.

Why some kids may be more vulnerable

Kids with learning and thinking differences can be at greater risk for a number of reasons. First, they often have more interaction with adults than their peers do. They may have regular appointments with doctors, therapists, or tutors. At school, learning specialists might work with them in separate classrooms for one-on-one instruction.

Their specific issues may also make them more vulnerable. Some kids may have trouble understanding or remembering safety rules and strategies. They may also not know how to judge whether people are safe to be around. Here are four key issues that may create safety challenges:

  • Hyperactivity: Kids who are hyperactive might try to keep quiet, as they’ve been taught — even when their gut tells them something’s wrong.
  • Impulsivity: Kids who are impulsive might not stop and think before answering a stranger’s questions.
  • Language processing issues: Kids with language processing issues may not understand or recall what they were taught about judging whether people can be trusted.
  • Social skills issues: Kids who have trouble picking up on social cues might not be able to read the body language of the person they’re talking to. They may mistake a situation as safe when it isn’t.

Issues with speech and memory can also create obstacles to learning safety rules.

Obstacles to teaching about stranger safety

How you talk about personal safety is important. Telling kids that strangers are dangerous can be confusing. Most of the adults kids interact with, including the professionals who work with them, are strangers at first.

If you were to discourage kids from trusting anyone they don’t know, they likely wouldn’t be able to form relationships with the people offering the services they need. That’s why it’s better to use the term “stranger safety” and talk about people who are “safe” and “unsafe,” whether or not your child knows them.

Telling kids that strangers are dangerous can be confusing. Most of the adults kids interact with, including the professionals who work with them, are strangers at first.

When teaching about stranger safety, it’s also important to keep your child’s emotions in mind. Some kids with learning and thinking differences are prone to stress and anxiety. Talking about how to protect themself from dangerous people might be scary. That anxiety might keep your child from hearing and remembering important messages.

Things you can do to help keep your child safe

Teaching your child the concept of stranger safety and giving your child strategies for handling situations with strangers can help make your child less vulnerable. Here are some other things you can do:

  1. Supplement what the school teaches. What safety programs are your child’s teachers offering at school? Read through the curriculum yourself. Try to emphasize those lessons at home. See if your child is confused by anything, and fill in any gaps you think the teacher has left out.
  2. Know the adults in your child’s world. Have a face-to-face introduction with any specialists your child meets with during the school day. Before their first appointment together, meet any therapists or doctors your child sees by themself. Meet and talk frequently with sports coaches and people who run activities your child is involved in.
  3. Listen up. If your child takes the initiative to tell you about something that made them uncomfortable, give your child the benefit of the doubt. Make your child feel heard, validate their feelings, and then look into what happened. This shows your child how serious you are about their safety.

Depending on your child’s issues, teaching your child about stranger safety may be complicated. Understanding your child’s challenges can help you find the best way to deliver the message — and have it stick.

Key takeaways

  • Kids with certain learning and attention differences are more vulnerable than other kids when it comes to staying safe.

  • Knowing the adults in your child’s world and supplementing what the school teaches about stranger safety can keep your child more secure.

  • Listen to and trust your child when your child mentions any uncomfortable interaction with an adult they do or don’t know.

    Tell us what interests you

    Share

    About the author

    About the author

    Lexi Walters Wright is the former Community Manager at Understood. As a writer and editor, she helps parents make more informed choices for their children and for themselves.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Mark J. Griffin, PhD was the founding headmaster of Eagle Hill School, a school for children with specific learning disabilities.