Recently I wrote an article on teaching kids concepts beyond stranger danger. Several people left comments about this great book called The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker which talks about gut instinct. I remember vaguely seeing the author on Oprah Winfrey a long time ago.
I love absorbing new information, so I quickly got the audio version and listened to it on my way to work. I fell in love with the book and devoured the second book, Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe.
These were two of the best books I have ever read. The books made me feel better equipped to keep myself safe and my children safe. It also taught me to trust my gut. If you haven’t already read it – you should definitely check it out.
I now realize that my gut instinct was protecting me long before I ever read that book.
A couple of years ago I was driving home. I had two of my kids in the backseat. I felt safe. It was day time. I was only a block away from my house. A young man waved me down from the sidewalk.
I was always taught to be polite. The polite me – stopped.
I lowered my window. He told me his car broke down and asked if I could give him a jump. I looked around. Where was his car?
He pointed into the distance. I saw a car on a service road behind our community. No one drove on that road. He asked if I could pull my car down the deserted gravel street.
Something was off.
As he continued to get more insistent – I stared off into the distance. I saw the shadow of another man waiting by his car.
My gut said stop being polite and drive away.
I had no reason to be suspicious, but my gut wasn’t feeling that way. I had two kids to keep safe and that was enough for me to curtly tell the guy I would call someone to help him – as I drove off.
I am not normally that rude. What got into me?
As I look back, there were other things that just weren’t right. My gut instinct had acted despite my naiveté.
Luckily I trusted my gut that day. I shudder to think about what I would have put my kids through if I didn’t listen to that nagging gut feeling.
As a child therapist, my own work experiences echoed in my ears as I listened to Protecting the Gift. So many of the abused kids I worked with hadn’t trusted their gut. When I reflect back on those conversations, I realize that many of us ignore our gut instincts.
We need to do a better job teaching our kids how to foster their gut instincts. I also realized that many of us well-intentioned parents inadvertently teach our kids to NOT trust their gut.
We teach kids to not trust their gut when we…
MAKE THEM HUG PEOPLE THEY DON’T WANT TO HUG
How often do we force our kids to hug people?
“Go give your uncle a hug!”
“Go give your Aunt Mildred a kiss.”
How often do we send a message to our kids that they are being rude if they don’t give people a hug? We undermine and disempower our children’s ability to say no when we force them to have physical contact against their will.
INSTEAD, TELL THEM…
They don’t have to hug people if they don’t feel like it. We should respect our children’s desire to not hug and kiss people. We can teach them how to politely decline physical contact.
Some children are more introverted and may be uncomfortable with physical contact. Other kids might sense something that you do not sense. Children can have amazing intuition about people around them. We should teach kids to trust their gut and keep their distance from those people that make them feel uncomfortable.
TEACH THEM THAT THEY MUST LISTEN TO ALL ADULTS
As good parents, we teach our kids to respect adults. We send a message to children that adults are in charge and when they do not listen to their elders they are being disrespectful.
I have worked with many children who did just that. They listened when a grown up told them to go to a room alone with him. They listened to the grown up when they were told to play body games. They listened to the grown up when they were told to keep their games a secret.
It is dangerous to teach kids to listen to all adults no matter what.
INSTEAD, TEACH THEM…
That they should listen to the adults that are responsible for them, like sitters, coaches, teachers and relatives BUT… If someone tries to hurt them, touch their private parts or tells them to keep a body secret – they do not have to listen to them, even if they are adults.
Role play how to get out of tricky situations. I teach kids to lie and say they have to go to the bathroom to get out of a secluded area with a dangerous adult. I also teach kids to call parents using a code word if they are at a friend or relative’s home and they are feeling unsafe.
TEACH THEM TO ALWAYS BE POLITE AND TO NOT SHOUT
Well behaved children are always polite, right? They are also more likely to be a prime target because they don’t put up a fight.
When we teach our kids to always be polite we give them a handicap against bad guys. They might have the urge to be aloof to an overly friendly stranger, but we’ve taught them to be polite. They might have the urge to scream, but we’ve taught them that shouting is not okay.
I remember when I was a kid, I went white water tubing. My foot got stuck in a rock, but my body and inner tube kept going down the river. I was going to drown. I found a twig and put most of my weight on it. It kept my head above water, but I knew it wasn’t going to last long. I had to scream.
I was a polite, quiet kid. It wasn’t in my nature to draw attention to myself. I still remember how hard it was for me to scream. In my head I thought, “Either I start screaming or I am going to die.” Luckily my survival instincts kicked in and I started to scream.
Don’t tell your kids to be polite no matter what.
INSTEAD, TELL THEM…
That if a stranger tries to take them, they should scream, shout and make a scene. Teach them to knock things down. Tell them that if an overly friendly stranger tries to talk to them, it is okay to not be friendly back.
Talk to them about gut feelings. Let them know that if they get an uncomfortable or unsafe feeling about someone, it is okay to trust their gut. They don’t need a reason or explanation for their feelings – sometimes gut feelings don’t come with explanations.
Role playing what to scream if someone is trying to hurt them or take them away.
TELL THEM WE WILL ALWAYS KEEP THEM SAFE
It is nice for kids to feel like we will keep them safe, but they should also know they have some mad skills of their own. When we tell kids, “I will always keep you safe” we are giving them a false sense of security.
We can’t always keep our kids safe – as sad as that may sound. Our children are not always in our care and even when they are – we can’t always guarantee their safety.
INSTEAD, TELL THEM…
That you will look out for their safety, but they also have to do things to keep themselves safe. They shouldn’t walk away with anyone else when they are with you. If they get a gut feeling that someone is unsafe, they should let you know. If they see something weird or concerning when you are in public they should tell you.
As we talked about before, kids have strong gut instincts. We should respect and nurture those abilities.
WE BELIEVE ADULTS OVER OUR CHILDREN
How many times do we ask the parent, “How was she?” after a sleepover. Do we ask our kids for their version of events? Do we double check that everything went okay after we leave their home? Sadly I have worked with many kids who have been abused while on a sleepover.
The number one predator tactic I hear over and over again in my therapy practice is “He told me no one would believe me. He said no one would take my word over his.” And sadly – this is often true.
Kids are more reluctant to tell adults their gut feelings because they feel the adults won’t believe them. They might have a hunch or a bad feeling, but they aren’t going to share it – because you might discount their feelings. They might feel the adult will have a reasonable explanation for their behavior – an explanation you are more likely to buy.
INSTEAD, TEACH THEM:
That they should always tell you when they have an uncomfortable feeling. That no matter what anyone else tells them, they should always tell you any body secrets someone wants them to keep private.
When your kids lie in general, tell them that you want to always believe them. Let them know that when they lie, it will be harder to believe them on important things – like when someone hurts them.
Explain that you want to always believe them, so even the small lies are harmful.
Our gut instinct is a primal skill that keeps us alive. Foster this skill in your children. Teach them to listen and trust their gut. Learn how to trust your own gut, so you can be a better teacher to your children.
Do you have stories of how you foster your child’s gut instinct? Do you have examples where your gut instinct got you out of trouble? Leave a comment and share with us!
Do you know someone who could benefit from learning how to foster their child’s gut instinct? Share this article with them!
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