Stranger Safety for Your Special Needs Child

Published on in Trisomy 21 Update

When we envision a child with Down syndrome navigating the world without adult supervision, fears about encounters with strangers naturally surface. Many individuals with Down syndrome are friendly and trusting, by nature, and respond warmly to a new acquaintance, a trait that is generally celebrated by those who are privileged to meet them.

But, this endearing quality creates a vulnerability that obligates parents to teach them to distinguish between acceptable, harmless exchanges with strangers and those with more sinister implications.

Here are some tips to help teach your child that “stranger” doesn’t always mean danger, but that self-protection always comes first.

Define the concept of “stranger” broadly

Talk to your child and explain that people not known to us may be very nice and well-intentioned, but also emphasize that some people intend to do us harm. Sometimes, it may be difficult to tell the difference. Review what it means to trust and list people that your child can safely trust.

As your child begins to understand the distinction between strangers and family/friends, use more difficult examples, like “the man with the small dog that we see at the park.” Explain that while this man is somewhat known to us, he is not someone we can trust.

Review casual interactions that occur in public places

Take note of pleasantries between casual contacts and take advantage of opportunities to discuss the details. For example, if a woman in line at a store engages your child, you can later elaborate, “That lady was a stranger to us, but she was very nice.” Review concrete reasons why the interaction was OK:

  • The child was with a parent, rather than alone
  • The woman did not ask him personal questions or try to make physical contact
  • After brief conversation, she resumed her own tasks without paying your child further attention

Review common lures

The National Center for Exploited and Missing Children reports that of the 14,500 attempted abduction reports analyzed since 2005, there were less than 100 lures used to entice a child’s cooperation. The most common were:

  • Offering a ride
  • Offering candy or sweets
  • Asking questions
  • Offering money
  • Using an animal, such as offering to show the child or claiming it was missing and needing help with a search

Practice “what if…” scenarios, such as, “What if the woman we met in the store said she needed your help carrying items to her car?”

Help your child identify a trusted adult in a public place

Look at pictures or point out police officers, security guards, bus drivers, cashiers or other store employees. Help your child recognize uniforms and other identifying characteristics. If your child can’t find one of these officials, they should look for a parent with children.

Advise your child that when asking a stranger for help, they should stay in sight of other people and not go off alone with that person.

Role-play scenarios that use common lures

Use a partner to demonstrate to your child how to appropriately respond to a common lure by a stranger. Ask your child questions about what you did correctly or incorrectly. Then, allow your child to take on the role of the victim.

Some tips:

  • Encourage your child to say “No” in a loud voice
  • Have your child refuse to talk further and run or walk away — toward a trusted adult if possible
  • Let your child know that if there is ever an attempt at physical restriction, they can use whatever means necessary to get away (yelling, kicking, attracting others’ attention)

When your child has mastered the role-play, set up a “test” situation with an individual well-known to you but not to your child, who can enact the role-play in a public place. Do not tell your child that they were subject to a test, but use their behavior in the scenario to work on areas that remain problematic.

The following handout elaborates these role-playing steps in more detail.

Take advantage of technology

If your child has a cell phone, have them call you or another trusted adult as soon as they have been in a difficult encounter with a stranger. Make sure your child knows when and how to activate an SOS system or call 911 if needed.

Give your child the power to decide when they feel uncomfortable

Your child should understand that if they are approached by someone they know but something doesn’t feel right (e.g. the person has tried to touch them, has used words that are not appropriate, or asks the child to go somewhere or do something they don't want to do) that he or she has the right to say, “No.”

If your child is unsure and can call you, encourage them to do that. Make sure your child knows their safety is the most important thing; your child will not be “in trouble” for questioning or opposing an adult in this situation.

Keep communication open

Encourage your child to discuss any encounters with strangers that occur while they are not with you. Help your child decide which were harmless and help them come to terms with anything that may have been distressing. 

Additional resources

More safety tips