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Teaching kids the skills they need to escape most attacks

This article by Kidpower International Founder Irene van der Zande was published on November 29, 2018, by GoAskMom NBC affiliate for Raleigh, North Carolina. Kidpower provides self-defense and safety workshops in North Carolina, as well as many other locations in the U.S.

The recent horrifying kidnapping and murder of 13-year-old Hania Aguilar has struck terror into the hearts of countless parents. The fact that the person who did this has not yet been caught creates an even bigger sense of fear.

What we have learned in Kidpower’s 30 years of teaching personal safety and self-defense worldwide is that, after a tragic abduction, most parents urgently want answers to these three questions:

1. How do I protect my child right now?
2. What do I say to my child?
3. How can I prepare my child to escape an attack?

Fear, anxiety, and helplessness are normal feelings, especially when a child is taken by surprise and stolen by a complete stranger from a place believed to be safe, like a front yard. Every situation is different, and we can never be sure what might have protected Hania.

What we do know is that children, teens, and adults are safer when they have the knowledge and skills to recognize and avoid danger, and to stop and escape from an attack – and that children need to be protected by their adults until they are prepared to take charge of their own safety.

Here are some answers and resources in reply to those 3 urgent questions.

1. How do I protect my child right now?
First, do your best to stay calm and get support for yourself. The murder of a child is absolutely horrifying, and we would not be caring people if we did not have feelings such as rage, fear, and deep grief for the suffering and loss caused by this terrible crime. Find other caring adults to talk with away from your children. Support police departments by sharing any information that can help them figure out what happened.

You can take effective action by ensuring that children have the supervision they need, reducing hazards where you can, and teaching children how to explore their world with safety and confidence.

Make sure that you know who is in charge of your kids at all times and that you are all on the same page about safety. Make safety plans for everywhere your children go and rehearse these safety plans with the kids and other responsible adults in an upbeat and practical way, including how and where to get help if it’s needed.

2. What do I say to my child about this tragedy?
Hearing about this repeatedly, or dwelling on any traumatic event’s horrifying details, is harmful to everyone’s emotional safety. Turn OFF the radio or TV when younger kids are around and try to avoid having upset conversations with other adults that kids are likely to overhear.

Worry does not make kids safer – it just makes them anxious.

If a young child is likely to hear, or has overheard and asks questions, then keep it simple. Say, “A very sad thing has happened, and a child got hurt.”

For kids who have heard about what happened, provide compassion, reassurance, and support without judgment. Listen to their feelings, talk about the steps being taken by public safety officers and other adults to protect your community and promise them that you will do everything in your power to keep them safe. Do not add more information about what happened as this just gives children more upsetting images.

Different children are likely to deal with upsetting events differently. Wanting just to play or do something else rather than keep talking is not necessarily a sign of denial or a lack of emotional health. Give children permission to show and talk about whatever feelings they have without having an expectation of what those feelings should be. However, if a child continues to stay very upset, this is a good time to seek professional help from a counselor.

Remind kids to stay together with you or another responsible adult – and to check first before they change their plan about where they are going, what they are doing, and who is with them.

3. How can I prepare my child to escape an attack?
Just talking about problems can cause children to become more worried without making them safer. Successful practice of how to take charge of their emotional and physical safety can increase children’s competence and reduce their anxiety.

It’s important to know that strong resistance can stop most assaults and that kids can learn self-protection skills that can help them to escape from danger.

Young people need to know when and how to fight to protect themselves. They often fear getting in trouble for fighting, or they don’t know how to use their bodies to resist.

You can teach children to use their voices and bodies to get away when someone is acting in a scary way. Explain that your voice can get the attention of people who can help you. Have children practice yelling “NO! STOP!” using a voice that is loud and strong. Have them practice yelling, “I NEED HELP” while running to a person who can help them.

Take a self-defense workshop together to learn physical self-defense skills. Explain to kids that fighting is a last resort for getting away from a dangerous situation, and not to be used just because you are upset with someone. However, if someone is about to harm you and you cannot leave or get help at first, your safety plan is to hit, kick, and yell until you can get away and get help – and don’t be fooled if an attacker says, “Shh. Be quiet and you won’t get hurt” or threatens to hurt your family. Even if someone has a gun, the safest thing to do is usually to run away. Make sure kids know that if they are taken, it’s not their fault, and to keep looking for ways to escape and get help from any stranger – and to never give up because their adults will always keep looking for them no matter what.

Empower children by giving them opportunities for successful PRACTICE of these 11 “People Safety” and Self Defense skills:

1) Moving out of reach and going to safety if something or someone might be unsafe.
2) Yelling and running to safety if they are scared.
3) Checking first with their adults before they change their plan about what they are doing, where they are going, and who they are with, including people they know.
4) Moving away and checking first with their adults if they are on their own before they let a person or an animal they don’t know well get close to them (or thinking first if they don’t have an adult to check with); even if that person seems nice, says they need help, or has something they want.
5) Understanding that the safety rules are different in emergencies where they cannot Check First;
6) Being persistent in getting help from busy adults, including strangers.*
7) Protecting their feelings from hurtful words, and how NOT to be fooled by threats or promises from someone trying to get them to stay quiet or go with them.
8) Using physical self-defense skills to escape and get to safety in an emergency.
9) Setting strong, respectful boundaries with people they know, as well as people they don’t know.
10) Walking and acting with awareness, calm, and confidence, even if they are worried or lost.
11) Making a safety plan with their adults for how to get help everywhere they go.

*Avoid talking about “stranger danger” – and instead talk about stranger safety rules like moving away and checking first. Remember that in emergencies we often need to get help from good people who happen to be strangers (first responders, workers in the store, crossing guards, etc.), and kids need to be able to know when it would be important to go to a stranger for help and how to be persistent in getting help from busy adults.

The right kind of self-defense training can increase the safety and confidence of kids and adults alike and choosing an effective and supportive program is essential.

For more information, we invite you check out more of our website for FREE articles, as well as workshops and books, about taking charge of safety for yourself, your children, your family, and your community.

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Published: December 4, 2018   |   Last Updated: December 4, 2018

Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: cartoon-illustrated Kidpower Safety Comics and Kidpower Teaching Books curriculum; Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe; the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults; Earliest Teachable Moment: Personal Safety for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers; The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, and the Amazon Best Seller Doing Right by Our Kids: Protecting Child Safety at All Levels.