Understanding Normal Behaviors
It's time to start letting your child's cognitive skills take the wheel as we guide them through this process. It all starts before you ever leave the house. It's easy to sit down with your child and have a conversation about the places they will go. Let's say, for instance, that you plan on taking your child to the park. Before you leave the house, start asking them questions about what they think they'll see there. "Will there be other children in the park?" "Will the other people there be happy or sad?" "How do you think everyone will be dressed?" Questions like this will start ring the process of visualization and allow your child to draw some general conclusions about baseline behaviors before you ever get there. If your child has been there before, they should have a pretty good idea of what to expect. By talking about their expectations beforehand, they'll be better able to speak with you about the things they feel are out of place or make them feel uncomfortable.
When you get to your destination, the first thing you should do is have your child express their general feeling about the place based on what they expected from the baseline. Here's a good way to practice that. The next time you walk into an area, be it a park, a restaurant, or shopping mall, give your child a few minutes to acclimate to their new surroundings, and then ask them this simple question: "How does this place make you feel?" Depending on their age, you may get a range of answers. "Happy." "Sad." "Good." "Bad." "I don't feel like anything." What's important is that you follow up, asking questions like, "What about this place makes you feel that way?" or "If you feel frightened, why?" Allow your child to express their feelings, but always try to ask a few probing questions to pinpoint the source of their concerns. When you do, have your child be as descriptive as possible about anything that may be making them apprehensive. If the feeling they get is good, have them be specific about what it is that makes them feel that way. Their answers regarding good feelings should reflect normal baseline behaviors.
Once the baseline is established, start diving into some of the games we talked about earlier. Spot the Good Guy is always a good place to start. Have your child identify as many helpers as they can as you move through your environment, and be sure to have them articulate why they chose the people they did. Were they in uniform? Were they wearing a nametag? Did they have children? Memory is also an excellent game to play in this connection. You could have them memorize the number of good guys they spotted and where they were located. Have them point to the direction of the exits or to where your car is parked. The point is to keep them fully engaged with their surroundings. As they play these little games, what they're actually doing is a detailed scan. They may not know it at the time, but their constant interaction with their surroundings has them open and alert to any changes within that environment. This brings us to the next objective of situational awareness, spotting abnormal behavior.
Spotting Abnormal Behaviors
Now that the baseline is established and you have your child fully engaged with their surroundings, they have to start identifying things that may be out of place or make them feel uncomfortable. Anytime they see or feel anything that makes them apprehensive or afraid, they must know their first move should be to come to you with the problem. If for some reason you aren't nearby, they should alert one of the preselected good guys to the issue. In my first book, Spotting Danger Before It Spots You, I tell the story of Julianne Moore. Julianne was a typical eleven-year-old girl who lived with her parents and younger brother Hayden in the suburbs just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. In the spring of 2019, Julianne and her brother were playing in the front yard near the street while her parents worked in the back. That's when a strange man approached the two children and tried to engage them in conversation. In subsequent interviews with the media, Julianne said, "He started to talk to us, but we really couldn't figure out what he was saying. It was like gibberish, so we really didn't think much of it." Julianne knew most of the adults in her neighborhood, and something about this man didn't feel right. As the man walked away, Julianne kept a close eye on him. She noticed that he hesitated and circled back toward them, another behavior that gave her a bad feeling. She quickly moved closer to her brother as the stranger lunged for Hayden and tried to pull him away by his arm.
Julianne said, "When he tried to grab my brother, I knew, like this was serious. I just grabbed my brother and went into the backyard because there was no time to panic. You just have to go with it." The children's father, Joshua Moore, told reporters, "My daughter came running back there with my son, dragging him by the arm and said, 'A man tried to abduct Hayden!'" At that point, Joshua ran to the front of the house and con- fronted the stranger, who continued walking away. He then called the police. Young Julianne had remained calm and observant during the incident and gave the police a detailed description of the stranger, including what he looked like, what he was wearing, and which direction he was headed. Using her report, police located the man nearby, placed him under arrest, and charged him with attempted abduction.
Looking back on the incident, Julianne said she was still rattled by what happened but was grateful that her parents had taught her to remain calm when faced with an emergency and to always to keep an eye on her little brother. Julianne's ability to react to her intuition, remember as much detail about the stranger as possible, and quickly alert her parents was instrumental in saving her brother and resolving the situation. This scenario is a perfect example of how everything can be fine one second and turn horribly wrong the next. That's why it's crucial to make sure your children are tuned in to their surroundings. Use the games we've discussed to help them make a habit of awareness. That way, when a baseline anomaly does present itself, they're not caught off guard and can react quickly to the change.
Creating a Plan
Young Julianne clearly had a plan: fight to save her brother and alert her parents as soon as possible—pretty straightforward. Some of her actions were completely subconscious. Despite her obvious fear, she was aware enough to take in a full description of the man and note what direction he was headed. This gave the police the information they needed to track the man down and make an arrest. Planning doesn't have to be overly complicated. When it comes to training your children in situational awareness, simplicity is always the best option.
Now let's give some thought to situations where planning is a critical element in safety and security. Although the dangers of kidnapping and predatorial violence are very real, it's much more likely that children will find themselves in situations around their own homes that require a preplanned response. Natural disasters and medical emergencies occur without warning and can cause a significant amount of fear and confusion in a young child. We adults must take the time to explain what constitutes an actual emergency and work with our children to create step-by-step plans for how to react in those situations.
Dr. Sanam Hafeez is a New York-based child psychologist who developed a specific program that outlines what kids can do in case of a crisis. Dr. Hafeez says the first step is teaching your young one to recognize what can actually be considered an emergency. "Your child could literally be in an emergency and not realize it," she says. This knowledge comes directly from her personal experience. "When I was eight years old, my house caught fire. And I was in my room reading a book. I had no idea what was happening," she says. "My sister came and got me, and I still didn't quite understand— no one had ever really spoken to us about an emergency, and I said to my sister, 'Oh, I think I should get my bike.' I was a bright kid, and my parents were very hands-on, but it just goes to show you kids don't understand the devastation something like a fire can cause."
Before you can get serious about developing plans of action, you have to teach your child that not everything is an emergency. You can't find your fairy wings ... not an emergency. Optimus Prime is missing his head ... not an emergency. You come home from school, and the door is broken and standing open—that's an emergency! Dr. Hafeez recommends explaining it like this: "An emergency is something very serious or very dangerous, like if Mommy or Daddy is hurt and can't get to the phone, or you're alone, and no one can come to you for help, or someone's trying to break in the door, or there are bad people in the house," she says. "Go ahead and give them a range of scenarios, but remember they're designed to teach, not terrify."
Editor's Note: The photo used in this article is of Sofia Juarez, a missing child, age 4, when she was abducted in 2003, Office of the Attorney General of California.
The above is an excerpt from Spotting Danger Before It Spots Your Kids: Teaching Situational Awareness to Keep Children Safe by Gary Quesenberry, Federal Air Marshal (Ret.), publication date May 2021, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 978-1-59439-811-7