The Myth of “Stranger Danger”

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Do you remember learning about “stranger danger” when you were little? I remember big school assemblies where they would tell us not to talk to strangers. This resulted in my constant fear about some scary guy in a van at the playground who would surely jump out and kidnap me.

Our parents and teachers were doing their best trying to explain the dangers of strangers. At the time, cases like the Adam Walsh kidnapping (1981) were all over the news. With no social media most of our parents relied on the nightly news and newspapers to learn what was going on in the world. Both of which made it sound like all children were in eminent danger.

Thus, the creation of the slogan “stranger danger”, school assemblies and uncomfortable conversations about not getting inside of scary vans driven by a scary men.

When our parents were teaching us about “stranger danger” they didn’t necessarily account for our little brains that weren’t fully developed. As a 7 year-old when I thought of “stranger danger” I immediately pictured a 7 foot tall man, with wild hair, skeleton tattoos up both arms and maybe a big scar from where he was cut with a shank while spending time in prison.

If you were to ask a child to describe an adult who epitomized “stranger danger” many would probably give you a similar description (although they might leave out the shank part). Kids often think a “stranger” is someone who looks scary, not a friendly adult who looks nice. They can also be confused about what it means to “know” someone. If they’ve talked to an adult once or have seen them before, many kids will think that adult is no longer a “stranger.”

Although the educational programming in the 1980’s might not have been the best, the public concern allowed the government to fund the 1984 Missing Children’s Assistance Act. The Act required the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) to conduct periodic studies to determine the actual number of kids who were reported missing and the number of kids who came home safe in a given year. The new research was called the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Throwaway Children (NISMART). Every ten years or so, they complete a new study. For the 2016 study click HERE.

Stick with me. I’m not a statistics kinda gal but NISMART completed some great analysis. First, they determined what most law enforcement already believed. Most kids are abducted by someone they know (ie non-custodial parent).

NISMART also found that the amount of stranger kidnappings remained about the same from 1997-2011; but, in 2011, a smaller portion of these incidents ended in victim homicide (8 percent in 2011 versus 40 percent in 1997). Such a big leap in such a short time frame is remarkable. While we often blame the internet and social media for exploiting our children, in this situation it definitely has helped bring these kids safely home.

The study also brought us these important facts…

  • Of all the kids reported missing 99.8% come home
  • Almost 90% of reported missing kids are either lost, had a miscommunication with parents, or have run away.
  • 9% are kidnapped by a family member, generally during a custody issue
  • 3% are abducted by non-family members, often during the commission of another crime like sexual assault or robbery. Even then the child generally knows the kidnapper.
  • Only about 100 kids per year (a fraction of 1%) are kidnapped by a complete stranger.

The same Act gave birth to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). NCMEC was formed in 1984. This amazing agency acts as a clearinghouse, an education hub, and data analysis extraordinaires. NCMEC did even more research into attempted abductions and found that many:

  • Occur between 2 pm and 7 pm
  • Occur when the child was going to or from school
  • The potential victims were girls between the ages of 10 and 14
  • The bad guy was traveling in a vehicle

How did these kids escape the attempted abductions? NCMEC did this research too. They found that 83% of the victims of the would-be abductor did something proactive. The kids ran, yelled, punched, kicked, etc.

Just the thought of having our kids taken from us is enough to give us shivers up our spines. But now that you’re armed with this knowledge, hopefully, you’ll rest a little easier. While statistically the chances of your child being abducted by a stranger are low, it’s still important to talk to our kids about what they would do if an adult tried to force them to leave.

Although it’s scary, we need to teach our kids that if an adult tries to force them into a car or to leave an area without our permission, it’s incredibly important that they fight. This is not the time to be polite or respectful, this is the time to make noise and get help.

Focusing on how kids can stay safe rather than on a slogan they don’t understand is the first step in tackling such a scary topic.

By | 2017-05-12T11:49:35+00:00 February 8th, 2017|Safety, Special Agent Heather|0 Comments

About the Author:

After 14 years of interrogating predators as a Special Agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), Heather Ryan founded Safe in the City. Now she travels the country spilling the bad guy’s secrets. Heather speaks to corporations, universities, and women’s groups about intuitive leadership, teamwork, sexual assault prevention and social media safety. Visit her website at to learn how she can help empower members of your organization to become strong, self-assured leaders.

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