PARENTING: RECENT MEDIA coverage of abducted children has prompted debate among both children’s groups and parents about the most appropriate ways to speak to children on the dangers of abduction and inappropriate contact from adults, writes BRIAN O’CONNELL
On the one hand, parents have to balance their own fears, as well as a certain societal hype around the issue, with allowing children have normal, carefree childhood experiences. Finding that balance, between common sense parenting and overprotectiveness, is one many find challenging.
Both the Madeleine McCann case and, in recent weeks, that of Jaycee Dugard, who was found alive 18 years after being abducted from her home, have raised parents’ sensitivities in this area.
But what is the best way to communicate dangers to children? And at what age? And are the concerns of parents based on real evidence or driven by over-hyped media campaigns?
Lloyd Byrne, national childcare manager with the Irish Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC), says the issue is something that parents are more aware of in recent times, and the ISPCC has noticed a rise in the number of callers asking for advice.
He says that while parents have fears of unknown persons abducting their children, in the majority of cases when an attempted abduction is made, it is often by a person known to the family.
“The first thing I would say is that it’s important that parents establish protocols with children before talking about who they should or should not talk to,” he says.
“Children should be told that mum or dad will be there to collect them if they’re going somewhere. We always advise parents to tell children that if they ever have to change the arrangements, the coach or whoever is in charge would be contacted. Sometimes mobile phones get a lot of bad press, but they can be very useful if parents are running late.”
Opening dialogue with children depends on each individual child, Byrne says, but for some it may begin when children start attending activities outside school, such as football or swimming. “There’s also the time when children are playing around outside the house.
“Parents will often say, ‘Play where I can see you’, or maybe tell the kids if they need anything they can call into Mrs Smith next door. You don’t want to tell children they can’t play outside, or that they need to be fearful of people who may just be passing or looking for directions. It’s about balance.”
Dr Eilis Kennedy, at the UCD School of Psychology, says the greatest risk for children is when they start moving around independently, from early primary years on.
“My opinion would be that as soon as a child can talk I would tell them don’t go away with someone they don’t know or that their parents don’t know. The latter part is important because, in some cases, the person may have befriended them.”
Kennedy points out that awareness of familiar and unfamiliar people is one of the earliest skills children acquire. “Most babies have it by nine months, and their natural instinct is to remain with people they know.”
Dr Angela Veale, lecturer in the Department of Applied Psychology in University College Cork, says the whole area of “stranger-danger” is a complex one for parents.
“Even young children can learn to say, ‘Don’t speak to strangers’,” she says, “but for very young children, the concept of ‘stranger’ can be vague.
“For instance, is it a stranger if the person is someone a child knows from seeing around the neighbourhood or if the child knows the person’s name? It can be difficult for children to grasp the difference between stranger and non-stranger.
“There is also a stereotype that strangers are male, so children may be confused by how to respond appropriately to approaches from females who are unknown to them.”
Veale points out that generally children between nine and 12 years of age understand the concept of stranger and are aware of the risks, but perhaps less clear on how they might respond behaviourally if approached.
“The challenge for parents is to give children skills to respond appropriately and to keep themselves safe, without fuelling extreme views of what ‘strangers’ might do,” she says.
“Children should be given a chance to explore, through discussion, role play and problem solving, a range of potential situations and what they might appropriately do.”
She says it’s important also for parents to keep the approach fun and relevant, and bear in mind that children have to have contact with a wide range of adults. Therefore, generating a general fear towards all adults is not the desired response and parents should be careful in the wording they use.
Figures show that more than 400 children who arrived into the State over the past nine years are unaccounted for, while last June, 20 children were missing from HSE-run hostels since the start of the year. Some may have chosen to leave of their own accord, or have been abducted by family members or resettled elsewhere in the community.
The number of sex offenders in Irish prisons rose last year from 237 in December 2007 to 275 in December last year. However, these figures account for only the most serious offences, and where an individual commits other crimes such as manslaughter or murder, only those crimes would be recorded.
One of the areas fuelling parents’ concerns is that once a sex offender or person who has attempted abduction has been caught and prosecuted, there is a worry that little rehabilitation occurs in prison, and that supervision upon their release is limited.
The ISPCC’s Lloyd Byrne says this is a problem, feeding public concern: “I feel that the risk offenders pose to young children when they are released should dictate their sentence. They go back out after prison in many cases with no sort of adequate care or treatment.
“It’s then up to the sex offender to sign on at a Garda station, and the onus is placed on the offender. I believe it should be the other way around. Obviously kids don’t need to know all these details, but adults do.”
- Having an open and honest relationship with children is one of the best ways of ensuring any inappropriate contact from strangers is reported to you.
- Always be sure children are aware who is collecting or dropping them off. If the situation changes, the children should know that a coach or adult supervisor will be informed and that an adult other than their parents won’t turn up to collect them unless previously arranged.
- Never leave children unsupervised. If you have to pop out to the shop even for five minutes, ask a neighbour to keep a watchful eye. It’s also appropriate to know the backgrounds and suitability of coaches, youth club leaders and summer camp organisers at activities your children are attending.
- It’s important to help children (especially under 10 years) to understand that a child does not have to comply with the request of an adult. Children be taught behavioural ways of saying no or of responding appropriately. Children can know something but may find it hard not to comply with adult demands.
- Adults should inform themselves of the dangers that may exist in a particular area. Children need not know the specifics – this information is the adult’s responsibility to absorb.
- Be mindful that the majority of abduction cases involve someone familiar to the person abducted.
in the Irish Times