1. Have a date night once a week with your child. We are often too distracted by our busy schedules and long to-do lists to take the time to sit down and really connect with our kids. Take the time to be with your child one-on-one once a week—no phone, no TV, no internet—and talk to one another. You might go to a restaurant, an ice cream parlor or the local park. You might even have a picnic in the backyard. But whatever you do, make sure to spend that time really talking—and listening. Forming that bond will make them more likely to come to you with a problem, to be honest and open with you about their lives. That will make keeping them safe an easier job. There are 168 hours in the week and nothing is more important than setting aside at least one of those hours to be with your child. Consider it an investment in their future, and in your own future as a parent who wants a fulfilling relationship with your children when they grow up. Keep it a sacred time and don't let anything in either of your schedules ever break it apart. If you don't take this time to connect, you run the risk of having a child who won't communicate with you at all.
2. Talk to kids on their level. This means talking in a way that encourages them to listen, and listening in a way that encourages them to talk. Children shut down when they feel that they are not safe to say what is on their minds and in their hearts, or if they think your TV program or work is more important to you than they are. And the older they get, the truer this is. You may not agree with everything they say, but you still want to listen. Use door openers that keep kids talking. Respond by saying, "Hmmmm..." "Really..." and just nodding your head. Put your full attention on children when they talk. And when you do hear something that is "iffy," state your opinion in a way they can relate to. When a child says something that you think is critical of you, don't jump on the child. Listen. It takes great courage on the child's part to speak up. You may find some truth there that helps establish an even closer relationship. Just the fact that you listened communicates to the child, 'My parent is okay,' and that's big in opening the doors to communication when there is a really big problem.
3. Speak openly about safety issues. Kids think they are invincible and what happens to others will never happen to them. Arm yourself with the facts and figures about any areas of concern you have so you will be able to arm them as well. Go over scenarios that could happen, and ask children to tell you how they would handle them. If their responses are not to your satisfaction, don't say, "That's wrong!" Instead say, "Those are options. Another option that might work even better is..." and then tell them a safer option. And don't shy away from topics that feel uncomfortable to you or to them. We try to shelter our kids to protect them, but when we don't expose them to the dangers that are out there, we are hurting their chances of protecting themselves. Make sure they understand that sometimes bad things can happen even when they are with someone they consider safe. Many children are molested by family members and children are often "kidnapped" by other parents. Make sure your kids understand that it is not always a stranger who could harm them, so that they know it's okay to tell you when someone they know has done something wrong.
4. Create signals. No matter how hard you try to protect your kids, there still may be times that things happen. It may be that they are in an unsafe situation with another adult or they are uncomfortable with the behavior of their friends but don't want to seem uncool by bailing out. Sit down with your kids to talk about different scenarios—times they may be in trouble and need help but can't come right out and ask for it. Then create special signals for kids to use when they find themselves in risky and dangerous situations so that they can get to you and get help, safely and subtly. You never know when your child may need help but is too afraid to ask for it outright. He may not be able to say, "Excuse me. I need to call my parents to come and bail me out." That would be embarrassing in front of peers, or dangerous in the wrong situation. But he can say, "I will get in trouble if I don't call my folks right now, and tell them I'm okay." When he does call, have a prearranged signal, a word that he rarely or never uses that he includes in the conversation. You can use that as your clue to come and bail him out or to call 911 to get help there fast.
5. Teach and rehearse with your kids how to say "no." We spend so much time teaching our kids how to talk to adults with respect that we often forget to teach them about their right to say no when they feel uncomfortable or scared. Most kids think that they aren't allowed to say no to an adult. And because they spend most of their lives not saying it, it may take a little practice for them to get the hang of it. Appelbaum tells a story of a time she worked as a therapist with a man who had a troubled background. In the course of therapy, he told her that he had molested his daughter. He said that he finally stopped when she said, "No. I don't want you to do that anymore." Rehearse scenarios such as a stranger coming up to a child to ask for directions or to get help for someone else. Have the child practice saying no clearly and firmly. Teach children to follow their gut instinct and how to listen to it to protect themselves. Sometimes all it takes to keep a child safe is a tiny two-letter word. It may not seem like much at the time, but you are arming children with a powerful weapon that you can't afford to miss.
6. Remember that your actions do speak louder than your words. Talking to your kids is important, but even when you aren't speaking to them directly, you are still communicating, and they are always watching and listening. Know that they will make their choices based on what you do, and not on what you say. If you smoke, and tell them not to smoke, they will gravitate to doing what you do. Be the choices you want your children to make. Studies show that children do pay attention, but not so much to what you say, but to what you do. You can teach your children to make positive choices by showing them what that looks like. Lead by example. Then you can tell stories of different scenarios that could possibly happen. Have them think about all of the choices they have in the different scenarios so that they realize there are always choices. For example, create a scenario in which a child of a similar age to your child's age is invited to a party, arrives there, and there are drugs and drinking. Have your child talk about the different choices available. Kids remember these scenarios. They stick in their minds, and if the time comes that they are exposed to them, they are not in shock, and will have a tendency to make wiser choices.
7. Finally, make your home the cool place to hang out. It's much easier to keep your children safe when you can keep your eye on them. By making your home an open, cool place to be, your kids will be more likely to hang around and have their friends over rather than hanging out outside your home. Have a cozy room set up in which kids can talk, listen to music, and hang out. Keep your refrigerator stocked with kid-friendly snacks. Most importantly, let your kids and their friends see that you are not judgmental and that you are someone they can talk to. When children hang out at your home, you get to know their friends. You get to start being a "parent" to all of them so that kids want to confide in you. It helps you to get into relationships with your children's friends AND their parents. And just like with anything else, knowledge is power. The more you know, the safer you will be able to keep your children. Keeping them in an environment you can control makes them much safer than when they are out of your reach. All it takes is an open door and an open mind.
Dr. Maryln Appelbaum, an outstanding authority on children, education and families, holds doctorates in both education and psychology. She has worked as a teacher, an administrator, and a therapist and has been a consultant throughout the United States. She has written more than 30 "how-to" books for educators and parents.
With her son, Marty Appelbaum, she owns a seminar training company, Appelbaum Training Institute, working with educators all over the world. www.atiseminars.org.