One spring morning in 2017, eighteen-year-old Emily woke up feeling adventurous. After a long winter, being outside in the warm sun and fresh air was just what she needed, so without much planning, she threw her beach bag into the trunk of her red convertible and headed out for a relaxing drive to the shore. With no specific route or schedule, Emily took the meandering back roads that led through the quaint tree-lined neighborhoods between home and the beach. As she headed south, her thoughts drifted toward the remaining events of her senior year in high school, prom, bonfire parties, and graduation. The top was down on the old mustang, the radio was up, and the world was as it should be. Unfortunately, the world doesn't always play by our preset narratives. Sometimes other people can intervene in our plans and send things spinning in an entirely different direction, and that's exactly what Emily was about to find out.
About an hour into her drive, Emily approached a stoplight in a small-town square. As she admired the old, red brick buildings and watched people strolling through the small public park, a rusted old pickup truck pulled into the left-hand turn lane beside her. She glanced at the man inside. He was alone, unsmiling, and staring back at her. Emily's intuition told her that something was wrong, something about the man just didn't feel right, but she couldn't put her finger on the reason why. Seconds at the stoplight seemed to drag on forever. Finally, the light turned green, and Emily continued along her route as the stranger in the truck turned left and disappeared from view. "That was weird," Emily thought to herself.
A few blocks further along, Emily stopped at another red light. A little disturbed by her encounter, she was now alert and much more aware of her surroundings. As she waited for the light to turn, she checked her mirrors. A sinking feeling settled in the pit of her stomach as Emily saw the man in the truck pulling up behind her. Emily immediately experienced a flood of adrenaline. Emily's mind did everything it could to rationalize the man's sudden reappearance. Was he lost? Had he made a wrong turn? Did he work in the town? Emily knew enough about the "fight or flight" response to recognize what her body and mind were experiencing, calm down, and start planning!"
As she pulled away, the man in the truck followed closely behind. Emily knew it was time to eliminate the possibility that this could all be a coincidence. She signaled and made the next right turn. The man in the truck did the same. She took the next left, and then one more left back onto the main road. Still, the truck followed. Now the possibility of this being a chance encounter were completely erased from her mind. "Now what?" Emily's phone was in her glove box, and she didn't want to make any unnecessary stops. "How do I get this guy to stop following me?" She was unfamiliar with the area and had no idea where the nearest police station could be. She saw that there were plenty of houses and people in the area, so she devised a hasty plan of action.
Emily scanned the nearby homes and spotted one with two cars in the driveway. Emily learned long ago that you could tell a lot about a family by looking at their vehicle. Stickers on the back bumper informed her that they were the proud grandparents of a local honor student. They were also dog owners, a German shepherd. "Perfect!" As Emily pulled into the driveway, the observant homeowners came outside to meet their unexpected visitor. Emily quickly explained what was happening with the man in the truck and that she felt afraid for her safety. The elderly wife embraced Emily as if she was a relative, and they invited her inside. All three stood by the large front window, watching the man in the truck intently. Knowing that he had been spotted, the stranger eventually pulled away and drove out of sight.
After a sufficient amount of time had passed, Emily thanked the couple for their help and returned to her car. She immediately retrieved her cell phone from the glove box and called her dad. She told him what had happened and that she was heading straight back home. "Keep me on speaker and head directly to the interstate," Dad told her. Less than an hour later, Emily arrived back home safe and sound. Her plans for a relaxing day at the beach had been shattered, but thanks to her situational awareness and quick thinking, her physical well-being was still intact.
If you've read the first two books in my "Heads Up" situational awareness series, you may have already known that Emily is my youngest daughter. Her plan to escape the man in the truck wasn't perfect, but it was efficient. The fact that she could fight off the effects of an adrenaline dump, devise a plan, and return home safely was good enough for me.
Worry is Natural as Breathing
There are no known forces on the planet that can stop a parent from worrying about their children. Worry is as natural to us as breathing. We watch them as closely as we can, communicate with teachers and other parents about their well-being, and monitor the time they spend online. We form a web of protection around our young ones, hoping that nothing will slip through our defenses. If we're diligent about this, it works.
But the time comes in every child's life when that parental control starts to feel oppressive. Their need for independence and social standing becomes so overpowering that it forces them away from the protective boundaries we've worked so hard to establish. What we tend to view as wanton rebellion, they regard as breaking away from a tyrannical overlord. Neither of those views is one hundred percent accurate, but a failure to reach some sort of mutual agreement about their safety can be damaging to both teens and parents.
I look back on the incident with Emily and try to deconstruct the process I used to teach my children about situational awareness. Something I did had worked but given the opposing objectives between teen independence and parental control, I felt that a more structured program geared specifically toward teens was necessary. For years I had taught situational awareness to newly hired federal air marshals. Teens, on the other hand, are a little different. The goals and objectives of teaching situational awareness are the same, but the methods you use to get that information across changes dramatically.
Teens may act as if they have everything under control and that they're perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, but I can tell you from experience that there is no set age where your children suddenly become confident, assertive, and self-sufficient. Just beneath that defiant, independent teenage spirit is a kid who's slightly confused by all the changes they're experiencing. As parents, we need to understand that releasing some of that parental control and letting our teens experience things on their own is an important part of their identity development.
It's About Confidence
As your teen begins to explore the limits of their individuality, the key to keeping them safe is to keep them tethered to reality. Personal safety isn't about being scared of what lies around the next corner. It's about confidence; confidence in the fact that if something bad were about to happen, you have the skills you need to identify the problem early, develop a plan of action, control your fear, and act upon that plan to keep yourself safe.
Before we begin, I think it's essential to have a general understanding of some of the unique threats teens face. As adults, we believe we have a good idea of what dangers await our children, but the fact of the matter is there's a vast divide between what we perceive as dangerous and what our teens are actually up against. That gap has only widened thanks to the technological advancements of the last twenty years.
For instance, before the advent of the Internet and social media, teens had the opportunity to disconnect from some of the threats they faced. Like most awkward teens in the 80s, I had my fair share of tormentors, but once I was back home and in my room, I knew I was safe. I could pop in some microwave pizza rolls, the latest Guns N' Roses cassette, and everything was as it should be. My mind had the opportunity to tune out the rest of the world for a bit, which did wonders for my mental well-being.
Now fast-forward. According to a 2017 study conducted by "Common Sense Media," American children ages five to eight spend nearly three hours on their screens daily. They spend roughly four hours and forty-four minutes a day on mobile devices between the ages of eight and twelve. Once they hit their teens, that number rises to seven hours and twenty-two minutes daily. Those numbers have only increased over the last few years as newer apps, streaming services, games, and social sites are added to the mix. What effect does this have on our teens? For one, it practically eliminates the opportunity for teens to enjoy the downtime we experienced prior to the Internet. Today, if a child is being bullied at school, that follows them home. Their tormentors can now harass and upset them electronically, making it almost impossible for them to escape. It seems easy for us as adults to approach the problem from a "just turn the phone off" perspective, but that's not as easy for someone in their teens.
Aside from cyberbullies, our children also face the threat of online predators, sexual exploitation, catfishing, and bribery, to name a few. We'll get deeper into all of that later on, but it all gives rise to the question, "How do we as parents tackle these problems and keep our teens safe?" The answer to that question lies in education, educating yourself about the problems that today's adolescents face, and educating your teens about the realities of predatory behavior and how it should be handled.
I am not a child psychologist or even a parenting expert. But as a retired federal air marshal and father of three, I do know a thing or two about staying safe. This is a book about situational awareness, what it is, and how to teach it to your teens. That's the goal here. The program I lay out in this book is developed specifically to set parents' minds at ease and allow teens to confidently explore their independence, secure in the fact that they can spot dangerous situations before they happen and take the necessary steps to ensure their own well-being. Make no mistake: this is a group project, and both you and your teen have to be fully committed. It requires teamwork, communication, and accountability. Now let's get started.
The above is an excerpt from the Introduction to Spotting Danger Before It Spots Your Teens, by Gary Quesenberry, retired Federal Air Marshal, Publication date April 2022, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 978-1-59439-868-1.