Why “Stranger Safety” Can Be Tricky for Kids Who Learn and Think Differently

By Lexi Walters Wright
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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 your child that strangers are dangerous can confuse her. Most adults your child interacts with, including the professionals who work with her, are strangers at first.

If you were to discourage your child from trusting anyone she doesn’t know, she likely wouldn’t be able to form relationships with the people offering the services she needs. 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 your child that strangers are dangerous can confuse her. Most adults your child interacts with, including the professionals who work with her, 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 themselves 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 her strategies for handling situations with strangers can help make her 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 her teacher has left out.

  2. Know the adults in your child’s world. Have a face-to-face introduction with any specialists she meets with during the school day. Before their first appointment together, meet any therapists or doctors your child sees by herself. 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 her uncomfortable, give her the benefit of the doubt. Make her feel heard, validate her feelings and then look into what happened. This shows your child how serious you are about her safety.

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

Key Takeaways

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

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

  • Listen to and trust your child when she mentions any uncomfortable interaction with an adult she does or doesn’t know.

About the Author

About the Author

Lexi Walters Wright 

is the former Community Manager at Understood (u.org/community). 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.

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