08/03/2015 22:12 GMT | Updated 20/05/2015 10:12 BST

Child Abductions And Stranger Danger: Putting The Risks In Perspective

Girl taking candy from stranger

If you saw recent headlines about a 13 more child abductions and kidnappings in 2013/14 versus 2012/13 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Sounds worrying. Is it?

Firstly, a 13% increase on a fairly low amount is not as scary as it sounds, although obviously each extra case is tragic for those involved. For so-called non-parental abductions (where a child was taken by someone other than their parent or guardian), there were 401 cases compared to 352 in 2012/13. This equates to 3.6 for every 100,000 children - these crimes are very rare.

Additionally this increase was over a relatively short period and came after 10 years when child abductions have fallen steadily. Whether it is a single year blip or becomes a longer term trend awaits to be seen - the latter would obviously be more worrying.

Meanwhile, the charity's report states that this might all be down to changes in the way crime is reported anyway: "whilst increases in this type of offence are clearly alarming, the explanation...may - at least in part - lie in changes to police crime-recording practices."

So should I grab that extra cotton wool, wrap my kids up and never let them out of my sight again?

Of course this is the stuff of every parent's worst nightmares when it does happen and it's vital that we continue to teach our children about 'stranger danger' but we also need to keep the risks in perspective otherwise 'therein lies madness' as the phrase goes – or unnecessary anxiety at least.

What's more, at some stage our children need to learn to be independent from us before they become adults - otherwise how else will they become street wise - and that's best done in small steps and with confidence. By following sensible advice and not getting too freaked out by the news headlines, hopefully we can all sleep at night and our children can go out and play out safely by day too.

Sensible measures to help keep your children safe but give them some independence too:

  • Go over 'stranger danger' guidance with your child and if it's been a while since you've mentioned it, cover it again now and then. The basics are that they should never accept gifts or sweets from a stranger and never go off with or accept a lift from someone unless it has been arranged with you. The NSPCC website provides further advice about this.
  • If they are scared, someone starts to touch them inappropriately or tries to persuade them to go somewhere, children should follow the 'yell, run, tell' rule. 'Yell' means shouting 'no' or 'stop', 'run' to get away and go somewhere safe (home, school, a police station, a busier place) and 'tell' to report the incident to a trusted adult such as a parent, teacher or police officer.
  • Ensure your child knows what you mean by 'stranger' – research by the charity Kidscape with 500 children aged between five and eight, suggested that many had misunderstandings of this term. Some for example thought that it could not include a woman or that they were only in danger if the person concerned actually looked scary. Explain that it can refer to anyone, no matter their gender or how smartly dressed they are, how pretty or kind they seem.
  • Have a family 'code word' - this will mean that if anyone unexpectedly comes to collect them from school or elsewhere, you would give them the code word - if they don't know it they should not go with that person, even if they are a family friend or acquaintance.
  • Help your child understand where they can get help if they encounter problems when out: the 'safer strangers, safer buildings' campaign is definitely worth a look. It explains in child-friendly terms which adults and buildings are sensible to go to for assistance if they are lost or out without their parents and feel in danger.
  • ...but reassure them that the risks are low and that this sort of thing is rare. Try not to show your own anxieties too much if you are concerned when they venture out alone for the first time.
  • Build up independence slowly – what to do when will depend on your individual child and where you live. Allow what you think is right for them rather than what their friends are all allowed to do - maturity levels and past experiences vary.
  • Make use of mobile phones: keeping a spare 'family phone' they can take when on their own is worth considering even if you don't want to provide a dedicated phone of their own just yet.
  • Have a 'three Ws' rule for children out on their own: they should tell you where they are going, who they will be with and when they will be back.

Liat Hughes Joshi is author of New Old-fashioned Parenting, published by Summersdale Vie.

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