Our hearts are broken by the tragic death of eight-year-old Maddy Middleton. This spunky little girl disappeared after playing with her scooter in a busy courtyard in the Tannery, an artistic community and housing co-op in Santa Cruz. We are deeply grateful to the hundreds of public safety officials, rescue workers, and volunteers who searched night and day to find her.
The death of an innocent child is devastating for everyone who is close to that child or who cares about kids – no matter what the reason. When a child disappears or is harmed by violence, terror and grief strike into the hearts of all who love this child – and of the entire community – and of all caring adults. As we grieve for Maddy and her family and friends, we cannot help asking ourselves hard questions.
What can we say to our own kids if a child is missing in our community? What can we do to keep them safe when they go out into the world on their own? How can we make our community a safer place for everyone?
Here are some recommendations from Kidpower:
- Protect children from adult feelings. Remember that talking about worries and fears creates anxiety without making kids safer. Practicing skills helps to reduce anxiety and increase competence. Protect your children from hearing details, speculation, and media coverage as much as possible. For example, in this heartbreaking tragedy ONLY if a child is likely to hear about what happened, you might say calmly, “We are sad because a little girl got killed after playing near her home. People found the person who did it, but this is still very upsetting and scary. Let’s practice our safety plan together.” Instead of keeping kids inside, go with them out into the world and coach them so that they can rehearse making safe choices.
- Remember that this kind of violence is NEVER the fault of the children who were harmed or their loved ones. In trying to make sense of something so terrible, sometimes people make comments or speculations that imply blame. Please respect the grief and privacy of the child’s family and friends. Our communities ought to be places where children can play outside and be safe.
- Beware of the Illusion of Safety – which happens when a situation is so familiar that you lower your guard about potential hazards such as traffic, water, animals, and people. Too often, children are injured or killed when lots of adults are around because no one is specifically watching out to protect kids who might be drowning, wandering off, or encountering someone who might harm them. Before you let your child go anywhere without adult protection, practice how to stay aware, make safe choices, and get help everywhere they go. Take the time to make safety plans and to discuss, review, and practice safety skills with your children and teens.
- Instead of talking about the bad things that can happen, help kids practice how to stay safe. For example, just telling kids to be careful around cars is not enough for them to be safe crossing the street or riding their bike unless they have actually rehearsed many times how to do this safely. And, just telling kids “don’t go with strangers” is often not enough to prepare them for tricks that a potential abductor might use to get them to lower their guard, such as a friendly person asking for directions or a neighbor inviting them to see something interesting. The reality is that most people who are a danger to kids are familiar to them. Teach children to check first with their adults before they change their plan about who is with them, where they are going, and what they are doing – even with people they know. Other important skills include using your awareness even if you are playing, texting, reading, or daydreaming; recognizing a potentially unsafe situation; moving away from trouble; interrupting busy adults to get help; setting boundaries with people you know; and using your voice and body to escape from a dangerous situation.
- Support children with their own feelings. Children who know a child who has been harmed or who hear about a disappearance or tragedy can be deeply upset by what happened. Help children regain their emotional safety by listening with compassion, giving them ways to share their feelings such as writing a card or drawing a picture, and empowering them with skills. Please see our free article Helping Children Regain Their Emotional Safety After a Tragedy, which has been used widely by mental health experts around the world.
- Join with other concerned community members to find solutions. Set clear boundaries to stop unsafe behavior for any reason in all public settings. Take action to address the social problems that lead to greater risks of violence. Speak up and get help if anyone’s behavior seems dangerous.
Here are additional free Kidpower resources that many parents, educators, and other caring adults have found to be useful in preparing kids to explore their world with safety and confidence without teaching fear:
- Preparing Children for More Independence – A Five-Step Plan From Kidpower
- Safety for Kids on Their Way to School – A Checklist for Parents
- How to Pick a Good Self-Defense Program
- Helicopters or Protectors: How to Keep Kids Safe Without Unhelpful Hovering
- Resisting the Illusion of Safety
- How “Stranger Danger” Hurts Kids: Teach Stranger Safety Instead
- What If I Get Lost? – Kidpower Skills for Teaching Children How to Get Help
- After An Attempted Abduction: Guidance for Parents on Keeping Kids Safe
Published: July 27, 2015 | Last Updated: August 1, 2016