When the world feels so dangerous, how can parents talk to their kids about staying safe — without causing fear? Experts weigh in.

Recent headlines have parents wondering how to keep their kids safe — and how to discuss risks with them. (Image: Getty; illustration by Aida Amer)
Recent headlines have parents wondering how to keep their kids safe — and how to discuss risks with them. (Image: Getty; illustration by Aida Amer) (Illustration by Aida Amer / Photo: Getty Image)

The news was on in Thenedra Roots’s home. It was at a low volume, mostly background noise, but the bit about Ralph Yarl caught the attention of Roots’s young son.

Roots explained the story of how 16-year-old Yarl was shot after mistakenly ringing a doorbell at the wrong house while attempting to pick up his younger brothers from a playdate. An 84-year-old man is now behind bars, charged with first-degree assault and armed criminal action.

The response from one of Roots’s 5-year-old twins still makes her stomach turn.

“Mommy, are we going to get killed?”

“Immediately I said 'no, absolutely not, Mom and Dad will always protect you,’ but in my heart I felt like I was drowning,” Roots tells Yahoo Life. “I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I felt like the wind was taken out of me. The only thing I can do is bring my family under my coat and run through it.”

The California mom of four is keeping her family close given what happened to Yarl, along with similar stories of young people being fired upon for approaching the wrong car or pulling into the wrong driveway, playing hide and seek in a neighbor's yard or having their basketball accidentally roll onto someone's property. These incidents have parents anxious for their children's safety — and trying to figure out how to express their concerns without instilling fear.

Establish boundaries and best practices.

Courtney Conley, a Maryland-based therapist who specializes in helping youths, says while talking to children about these recent events, it’s important for parents to remember balance.

“You want to teach your kids stranger danger, but you don’t want them to be scared of the world,” she tells Yahoo Life.

Conley offers these tips for parents concerned about safety:

  • If your child is going outside to play, be clear and make sure they understand boundaries. If kids are to stay in the yard, be clear (front yard, back yard, side yard). If the neighbors are friendly and have a safe home, make it clear if the children are able to go to their yard. If the neighbors are unfamiliar or wouldn’t appreciate children on their property, make that known to the children.

  • If teens are driving somewhere new, make sure they have a charged phone and a charger in the vehicle. Also make sure they know how to use directional apps. Try to avoid turning around in someone’s driveway. Instead, find a cul-de-sac or a space where a turn can be made safely.

  • If a child is going to a new house, tell them to ring the doorbell and step back. That way if there is a camera aimed at the front door, the camera can capture a clear shot of the child that shows there is no threat to the homeowner.

Be prepared, and alert.

Gary Quesenberry, a veteran, former federal air marshal, author and CEO and founder of Quesenberry Personal Defense Training, says it’s important for parents to teach their children from an early age to be aware of their surroundings and give them tools to identify problems.

“The sad fact is bad things are going to happen and it’s your job as parents to talk about them,” Quesenberry says. “Communication is the most important thing. Find out what your kids are afraid of and give them solid, good advice on how to handle it, because they are going to be turned loose in the world and expected to be responsible adults.”

They key is to start early, as young as 4, which he says is when children are able to become aware enough to notice when things are off. Quesenberry suggests parents play a game by encouraging kids to interact with the checkout person at the store or the server at the restaurant. When leaving the business and walking to the car, parents should ask their kids questions about the people they engaged with. What color shirt was the cashier wearing? Did the waitress have a name tag on?

“This will train your child to take note of the surroundings,” Quesenberry says. He also recommends the "what-if" game. Similar to how parents might teach their kids a fire safety plan, they can talk through strategies in the event of an emergency while out in a public space. Where can you hide? What's your meeting point if you get separated?

Quesenberry acknowledges that teens will be teens, and mischievous, carefree behaviors may creep in every now and then. It’s a parent’s job to prepare them for every and all outcomes. Days of pranks like ding-dong-ditch or toilet papering someone’s house may not translate into innocent fun anymore.

“When they engage in that risky behavior it may not be a slap on the risk,” Quesenberry says. “It may be more drastic.”

Avoid striking fear.

Nancy Reynolds, founder and owner of the parenting resource Raising Teens Today, says parents do their kids a huge disservice if they don’t teach them about the dangers in the world today. However, she warns there is a big difference between educating and scaring children.

“The Ralph Yarl case was horrible, unfortunate and never should have happened,” Reynolds tells Yahoo Life. “It’s news stories like this that trigger parents, understandably, to put tighter controls on their kids. But I think it’s extreme to tell our kids never to knock on someone’s door in an emergency, for instance."

She goes on to say every parent has an underlying fear that something could happen to their child. But basing every decision on fear is not helpful.

“Instilling a blanket ‘dangerous world’ philosophy into our kids’ hearts and minds won’t serve them well in the future,” Reynolds says.

She reiterates that communication is imperative. Kids today have more access to information than their parents did, which can be good and bad. When those news stories pop up, parents should use it as a gateway to talk with their children about their views, fears and concerns.

“Instead of saying, ‘you have to be careful of everyone and everything — today’s world isn’t safe,’ say something along the lines of, ‘just be mindful and aware of your surroundings. Things can and do happen. Don’t take unnecessary risks and if a situation feels unsafe or you’re unsure, don’t do it.’”

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