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Protecting Our Teens & Tweens: Give Them Street-Smarts

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Pattie Fitzgerald is a child safety educator and a blogger. She was here to help us understand why teenagers are susceptible to the sort of thing that happened to the three Cleveland girls who were kidnapped and held prisoner for more than ten years.

The news this week has been shocking, horrific, and frightening as three young women abused in captivity for over 10 years are finally free and a monster is behind bars where he belongs. It's a parent's worst nightmare and everyone is asking the same question… How can we keep this from happening again?

Make no mistake: Gina DeJesus, Amanda Berry, and Michelle Knight are NOT to blame for their kidnapping. The blame lies solely on the cunning fiend who tricked them into trusting him and took advantage of their innocence.

The abductions in Cleveland are a clear example of why using the "stranger-danger" concept doesn't work… not with young children and not with our older kids. Why?

1) Kids are tricked by the nice, friendly demeanor of a stranger so their "danger-radar" doesn't necessarily kick in.

2) As we have seen in this latest case, the perp isn't always a stranger. For Gina DeJesus, he was the father of one of her friends. Once again, no danger-radar because he's familiar.

We've got to keep talking about Tricky People and share specific safety DO's and DON'T's with our kids when they're out. Kids don't know what to do unless we teach them what to do… if approached by someone friendly or by an acquaintance offering a ride, etc.

It's not enough to tell kids "don't talk to strangers". We have to give them the safest, proactive strategies they can use at a moment's notice if necessary.

It's not about being a helicopter parent. It's ok to allow kids of a certain age to have some independence. We just have to teach them HOW to be in the world so that they're street-smart and savvy. Don't assume your child knows this already just because they're a little bit older now.

The Facts

• Statistically, teens and tweens are more vulnerable to abduction simply by virtue of the fact that they have more independence/less supervision. Walking or riding bikes to school, a friend's house, etc. *Most vulnerable age range: between 10 -14 years old.
• Simple science: the Prefontal Cortex of the Brain isn't fully formed till your early 20′s. This regulates risk taking, impulsivity, ability to plan or strategize. Meaning: they're quick to act and may not always perceive the possible consequences.
• Over 70% of abductors use a vehicle in their ploy to move that child quickly.

Combine this with several other factors:
• Teens innately feel "I can take care of myself. "This won't happen to me."
• Have a false sense of security in their familiar surroundings (neighborhood, school, etc.). Less aware/alert.
• Their danger radar doesn't go up if a stranger seems nice.
• If the person is an acquaintance, (i.e. Castro), they may not think twice about entering that person's home or car, because they've never been told not to do that.
• If they feel threatened, a teen may not run or yell out for help because it's "embarrassing", don't want to make a scene. (Younger kids more likely to yell out if scared or threatened).
• Parents assume a teen knows what to do in an unsafe situation.

Typical threat or trick from predator is different with a teen than a younger child:
• "Hurry up, get in my car because … "   Doesn't give the teen a chance to process what's happening.
• Offering a teen money for some kind of easy job or task. (Teens more likely to take it).

So how do we keep our teens and tweens safe? Lots of reminders! This is a conversation that must beongoing by the parents or guardians as our kids venture out into the world more and more on their own.

1. Under no circumstance should a child ever get into a car unless that child has already received previous permission by a parent. No exceptions. Even if that person is an acquaintance.
2. Stay away from any person or car that tries to engage in conversation. No need to be polite, or help people you don't know. Safety trumps politeness.
3. Understand that a predator is going to be friendly and outgoing. Teens are especially vulnerable to tricky people because they're nice.
3. No shortcuts. Stay on your route, and have safe-stops along the way in case of emergency (a store, local business, etc.)
4. Buddy system whenever possible. You're less likely to be victimized, and if approached, one child may be able to remind the other of what NOT to do.
5. If you're being followed or feel unsafe in anyway, cross the street, go in the opposite direction. If grabbed: MAKE A SCENE. Don't worry about being embarrassed!  Yell, kick, scream, call attention to yourself. You can scare off the perp.
6. Stay alert. No walking with headphones on, don't text or talk on the phone. A distracted child is an easier target.
7. PARENTS: Don't assume your child will remember this. You must remind them more than once. They'll roll their eyes and say "I know, I know".  That's OK, they're still listening.
8. Report anything that seems suspicious or unusual. Tell a trusted adult immediately.

*Statistic from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

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