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Parent and child smiling and talking outsideKnowing how to get help is a crucial personal safety skill for children and teens of all abilities. The following article is from The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults, which is the most comprehensive resource available for how to protect young people from bullying, violence, and abuse.

Everywhere they go – including in distance learning classes, social media, multiplayer games, and other online spaces – children and teens are safest if they know how to find trustworthy adults who they can go to and ask for help when they have a safety problem.

Assuming that children will “just know” how to keep themselves safe in different situations or where to get help when they have problems is a mistake. Adults forget that children do not understand the world in the same way that we do. Without preparation, even teens might change what they have done in the past very suddenly.

When young people have a plan that they have discussed and practiced, they are far more likely to get help sooner rather than later, which can prevent many upsetting or potentially dangerous problems from getting bigger. Here are seven steps from Kidpower to prepare children to get help with they need it, everywhere they go:

1. Be sure that young people know what you mean by “getting help.”

When you have a safety problem, getting help means communicating with an adult, not hiding in the closet or behind the bushes in the yard. At any age, if we realize we are hiding instead of getting help, then as soon as we realize it, we can change the plan and go get help! Be clear that an adult means an adult human, not an adult goldfish or dog, no matter how old and wise.

2. Make a list of all places they might go – including online.

Name these physical places when you are there so that children know exactly what you mean – the neighborhood store, the park, the schoolyard, the classroom, the afterschool program, in front of your home, different rooms in your home, a friends’ home, your car, etc. etc.

Online, young people who are taking virtual classes, using social media, or gaming also need your support learning how to recognize and identify each of those virtual places.

3. Brainstorm to think of safety problems they might encounter.

If a child brings up scary ideas, like being captured by a bunch of criminals with laser guns, you can say that you will talk about that problem later but want to deal with more problems that are more likely to happen first. For example:

  • A friend does something that is embarrassing or confusing or that you are not sure is okay
  • Your adult doesn’t come to pick you up because of a flat tire
  • You get separated from your adult in a store
  • A family member starts telling scary stories on an overnight visit
  • You are riding your bike and fall down and get hurt, and your grownups are not nearby
  • You try calling for help on your cell phone, but it’s out of power or out of range
  • Someone you don’t know starts talking with you when you are away from your grownups
  • Someone you know gets so upset that you feel afraid
  • Someone you like a lot starts touching you in ways that break your safety rules
  • A person in your neighborhood says or does things that make you feel scared
  • There is an earthquake, fire, tornado, or snowstorm

4. Agree on a list of people who can help your child in different situations.

As soon as they are able to understand, give children a list of known adults by name who could be part of their safety plan. These can include adult family members, adult friends, teachers, parents of friends, neighbors, etc.

Also, come up with a list of people that the children do NOT know, but who could be resources when these children do not have access to their familiar adults. These are people who are able to help because of their position, such as cashiers, security guards, firefighters, rangers, etc. Point these people out in different locations so children can get used to seeing what they look like and where to look for them.

In online spaces youth have permission to use – or that they want to get permission to use! – help them identify who can help them with problems that come up in those spaces. In virtual learning, practice all the ways they could get help from the teacher. And, have them practice walking away from a device – during an online class, gaming, or any other online activity – to get help from an adult they trust away from the digital space.

5. Combine the list of places, problems, and people to make a Safety Plan for what to do and how to get help.

Here’s a sample list.

Problem and Place:                                                     Safety Plan:

You see a big snake in your front yard.                    Go tell an adult in your home.

You get cut and start bleeding at home.                   Go tell an adult in your home.

Your home catches fire, and no adult is home.        Go to your neighbor, and call 911

Kids are using hurtful words, in person or online      Move away from the device and go to your adult

You get lost or separated in a big store.                   Go to a cashier in the nearest store.

An online pop-up asks for personal information        Go to your adult and check first.

Your adult doesn’t pick you up after school.              Go to the secretary in the office and call your adult. Wait there.

6. Review and update safety plans whenever the situation a child is in is about to change.

Examples might include: walking or riding a bike somewhere for the first time; joining a new class or school, in person or virtually; going alone on a bus or plane; taking a family trip; moving to a new neighborhood, or sleeping over at summer camp.

Remember that children often have a very different perspective on time than their adults. If you are going to a place where you haven’t been for a while, review and practice the safety plan to refresh their memories, even if you think they already know.

Make sure everyone your child is with is on the same page. Discuss safety plans with all people who are left in charge of children so that you have an agreement about what level of supervision will be provided and how problems will be handled.

In distance learning environments, recognize that boundaries and safety plans might change as the teachers and other adults in charge continue to develop and improve their processes. Stay in touch with the adults running any in-person or online class, team, or club your child joins so that you know about changes to the safety plans.

7. Give children opportunities to be successful in practicing how to interrupt busy adults in order to get help.

Be sure that children understand when they need to wait (if they just want something) and when they need to interrupt and keep asking (if they have or see a safety problem). Role play together. Pretend to be a busy adult your child does not know well. Coach your child to interrupt in a respectful, clear way. Pretend that you are impatient and not wanting to be bothered at first. Coach your child to stay respectful while persisting in getting help. Discuss with your child how, if the first adult they go to still doesn’t listen, their job is find another adult and keep asking until someone does something about the safety problem. Discuss and practice plans for problems that might come up in online classes or multiplayer games they might be joining or social media they might be using.

Kidpower Safety Comics for Adults With Younger Children and Older Kids Safety Comics provide interesting and interactive tools for discussing and practicing safety plans to prevent and deal with a variety of problems both with people you know and people you don’t.

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Copyright © 2012 - present. All rights reserved.

Published: March 8, 2012   |   Last Updated: July 2, 2021

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.