Feature Archive

Protecting Children From Evil

Can parents prevent kidnappings?

By Jennifer Warner
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

Judging by the string of recent abduction cases, protecting your child from becoming the victim of a predator takes a lot more these days than just telling them not to talk to strangers. WebMD talks to experts to find out what's going through a kidnapper's mind and tell parents how they can protect their children.

Although these cases have garnered national headlines, experts are quick to point out that being abducted or killed by a stranger still ranks very low on the list of dangers your child may face. But there are things parents can do to protect their children and make them less likely to fall prey to a criminal.

What Makes a Criminal Tick?

What could make someone do such a thing? That's the question in many people's minds after hearing about children being taken from the safety of their own homes and then found murdered days or weeks later.

For most violent criminals, such as kidnappers, rapists, and murderers, it's all about power, control, and the pursuit of excitement, says Stanton Samenow, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Inside the Criminal Mind.

"These are people who see humans as objects for conquest and really don't have reciprocal or give-and-take relationships with others. They're loners," says Samenow, who is also a spokesperson for the American Psychological Association. "They want to prevail, no matter what it takes, and they don't think about how it affects others, only about what provides excitement."

Samenow says that for some criminals, overcoming obstacles -- such as taking a child from the safety of their own home rather than a public place -- may even add to their level of excitement.

Experts say child predators generally use one of two possible strategies to achieve their objectives. They either use brute force or speed to snatch a child away or slowly insinuate themselves into the lives of their prey by offering them something, befriending them, and then taking them.

Children can be attractive targets for some criminals because they are more vulnerable, less likely to protect themselves, and the likelihood of total control of the victim is almost completely assured.

But Samenow says he doesn't necessarily believe violent crimes against children are becoming more frequent, although there does seem to be a heightened awareness of the issue in recent months.

Show, Don't Tell, Kids About Safety

While there's little anyone can do to protect their children from becoming the victims of a random crime or act of violence, some experts say parents can teach kids a lot more about personal safety by what they do rather than what they say.

"I don't think it's a good idea to spend much time talking to kids about what strangers might do to them," says Edward Christophersen, PhD, professor of pediatrics at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. He says scaring a child is more likely to make them tune out of a conversation entirely or make them paranoid.

"There are all sorts of safe behaviors that we can teach them through our own behavior that don't raise their anxiety levels," Christophersen tells WebMD. "You don't have to tell them why you're doing it."

For example, locking the doors every time you come home or leave the house, locking car doors and rolling up the windows when driving, and being cautious about who you speak to or let into your home can instill safety-conscious behaviors that last a lifetime.

Christophersen says parents should follow their children's lead in bringing up how and when to talk to strangers. That way the child's interest has already been raised, and he or she will be more likely to listen to what you have to say than if you bring it up out of the blue.

And although having a conversation about safety is important, Christophersen says parents shouldn't put too much stock in words alone.

"If the parents are saying how careful you have to be, and then the parents are careless," he says, "you're gaining absolutely nothing."

Be Your Child's Confidant

In fact, being a good parent may actually be your best defense.

James Janik, PsyD, chief psychologist at Cook County Juvenile Detention Center in Chicago, says the most important thing you can do to protect your kids from harm is to have an open and honest relationship with them.

"Parents should let their kids know that they are their best friends and tell them there is nothing the kids can't talk to them about," Janik tells WebMD.

Janik says pedophiles and other criminals will make up all sorts of reasons for the children not to talk to their parents about their interactions, "and kids are still trying to make sense of the world, and these things wind up becoming believable to them."

He says children between the ages of 5 and 8 are often targeted by criminals because that's the time when they tend to quickly establish close relationships with adults and are still easily suggestible.

That's why Janik says children should learn to listen to their own fears when they begin to feel uncomfortable in a situation.

"Any time they get a scared feeling, they should pay attention to it and become more careful or do something about it -- kick and scream, anything to get another adult's attention," he says.

Parents should also tell their children where or how to find someone they can trust if they have a problem and the parent isn't around. "People in fire or police uniforms, schools, or homes that have neighborhood watch decals are generally places where they can go if they need help," says Janik.

Most importantly, Janik says you want to spend time with your children and establish as good a relationship as you can so that they feel comfortable coming and talking to you about all sorts of things.

"If a kid is mad at his or her parents," Janik says, "he will look to establish a relationship with another adult that pays attention to them."

Originally Published July 17, 2002.

Medically Updated Feb. 5, 2004.


SOURCES: Stanton Samenow, PhD, clinical psychologist, author, Inside the Criminal Mind. Edward Christophersen, PhD, professor, pediatrics, Children's Mercy Hospital, Kansas City, Mo. James Janik, PsyD, chief psychologist, Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, Chicago. American Psychological Association.

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