Teaching Children How to Get Help

Seven Steps from Kidpower

Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director

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Knowing 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, as soon as they can understand, children 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, children might change what they have done in the past very suddenly.

When children 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 children 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 back yard. 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 with children of all the places they might go.

Name these 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’ house, your car, etc. etc.

3. Brainstorm to think of safety problems that children 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 the cell phone is out of batteries or in a no-service area
  • 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.

Come up with a list of people that the children don’t know, but who could be resources when these children do not have access to grownups who they do know. These are people who are able to help because of their position, such as cashiers, security guards, police officers, 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.

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 house.

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

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

A kid keeps tripping you in your classroom.             Go tell your teacher or the aide.

Kids keep saying mean things to you at recess.       Go tell the yard-duty teacher.

You get lost in a shopping center.                               Go to a cashier in the nearest store.

Somebody follows you on your way home.                Run to the lady in the blue house on the corner.

Your parent doesn’t pick you up at the park.             Go to the secretary in the office across the                                                                                  street and call your grownup. 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, going alone on a bus or airplane, starting at a new school, 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, ask children to tell you what the safety plan is 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.

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.) Pretend to be a busy adult whom 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.

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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About the Author

Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
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: Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, the Kidpower Safety Comics series, the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults, and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.
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