Go Ask Mom

Go Ask Mom

After a tragic abduction: The 3 things parents most want to know

Posted November 29, 2018 6:27 p.m. EST
Updated November 29, 2018 6:42 p.m. EST

Editor's note: Kidpower offers programs across North Carolina. You can contact Kidpower North Carolina Center Director Maryjane Hayes at 919-586-7061 to learn more about custom Kidpower workshops.

The horrifying kidnapping and murder of 13-year-old Hania Aguilar has struck terror into the hearts of countless parents. The fact that the person who did this has not yet been caught creates an even bigger sense of fear.

What we have learned in Kidpower’s 30 years of teaching personal safety and self-defense worldwide is that, after a tragic abduction, most parents urgently want answers to these three questions:

1. How do I protect my child right now?

2. What do I say to my child?

3. How can I prepare my child to escape an attack?

Fear, anxiety, and helplessness are normal feelings, especially when a child is taken by surprise and stolen from a place believed to be safe, like a front yard, by a complete stranger. Every situation is different, and we can never be sure what might have protected Hania.

What we do know is that children, teens, and adults are safer most of the time when they have the knowledge and skills to recognize and avoid danger, to stop and escape from an attack – and that children need to be protected by their adults until they are prepared to take charge of their own safety.

Here are some answers and resources in reply to the urgent 3 questions we hear most often from upset parents.

How do I protect my child right now?

First of all, do your best to stay calm and get support for yourself. The murder of a child is absolutely horrifying, and we would not be caring people if we did not have feelings such as rage, fear, and deep grief for the suffering and loss caused by this terrible crime. Find other caring adults to talk with away from your children. Support police departments by sharing any information that can help them figure out what happened.

Until Hania’s attacker is caught, stay extra aware and don’t leave kids alone without adult protection.

Make sure that you know who is in charge of your kids at all times and that you are all on the same page about safety. Make safety plans for everywhere your children go and rehearse these safety plans with the kids and other responsible adults in an upbeat and practical way, including how and where to get help if it’s needed.

You can take effective action by ensuring that children have the supervision they need, reducing hazards where you can, and teaching children how to explore their world with safety and confidence.

What do I say to my child about this tragedy?

Hearing about this over and over, or dwelling on the horrifying details of any traumatic event, is harmful to everyone’s emotional safety. Turn OFF the radio or TV when younger kids are around and try to avoid having upset conversations with other adults that kids are likely to overhear.

Worry does not make kids safer – it just makes them anxious.

If a young child is likely to hear, or has overheard and asks questions, then keep it simple. Say, “A very sad thing has happened, and a child got hurt.”

For kids who have heard about what happened, provide compassion, reassurance, and support without judgment. Listen to their feelings, talk about the steps being taken by public safety officers and other adults to protect your community, give them ways to offer support to Hania’s family and friends if they wish, and promise them that you will do everything in your power to keep them safe. Do not add more information about what happened as this just gives children more upsetting images.

Different children are likely to deal with upsetting events differently. Wanting just to play or do something else rather than keep talking is not necessarily a sign of denial or a lack of emotional health. Give children permission to show and talk about whatever feelings they have without having an expectation of what those feelings should be. However, if a child continues to stay very upset, this is a good time to seek professional help from a counselor.

Remind kids to stay together with you or another responsible adult – and to check first before they change their plan about where they are going, what they are doing, and who is with them.

How can I prepare my child to escape an attack?

Just talking about problems can cause children to become more worried without making them safer. Successful practice of how to take charge of their emotional and physical safety can increase children’s competence and reduce their anxiety.

It’s important to know that strong resistance can stop most assaults and that kids can learn self-protection skills that can help them to escape from danger. Young people need to know when and how to fight to protect themselves. They often fear getting in trouble for fighting, or they don’t know how to use their bodies to resist.

You can teach children to use their voices and bodies to get away when someone is acting in a scary way. Explain that your voice can get the attention of people who can help you. Have children practice yelling “NO! STOP!” using a voice that is loud and strong. Have them practice yelling, “I NEED HELP” while running to a person who can help them.

Take a self-defense workshop together to learn physical self-defense skills. Explain to kids that fighting is a last resort for getting away from a dangerous situation, and not to be used just because you are upset with someone. However, if someone is about to harm you and you cannot leave or get help at first, your safety plan is to hit, kick, and yell until you can get away and get help – and don’t be fooled if an attacker says, “Shh. Be quiet and you won’t get hurt” or threatens to hurt your family. Even if someone has a gun, the safest thing to do is usually to run away. Make sure kids know that if they are taken, it’s not their fault, and to keep looking for ways to escape and get help from any stranger - and to never give up because their adults will always keep looking for them no matter what.

Empower children by giving them opportunities for successful practice of the following “People Safety” and Self Defense skills. We teach and practice these skills, and more, in our interactive Kidpower North Carolina workshops:

  • Walking and acting with awareness, calm, and confidence;
  • Checking first with their adults before they change their plan about what they are doing, where they are going, and who they are with, including people they know;
  • Moving away and checking first with their adults if they are on their own before they let a person or an animal they don’t know well get close to them (or thinking first if they don’t have an adult to check with);
  • Moving out of reach and going to safety if something or someone might be unsafe;
  • Setting strong, respectful boundaries with people they know;
  • Protecting their feelings from hurtful words;
  • Making a safety plan for how to get help everywhere they go;
  • Being persistent in getting help from busy adults;
  • Understanding that the safety rules are different in emergencies where they cannot Check First;
  • Yelling and running to safety if they are scared; and
  • Using self-defense skills to escape and get to safety in an emergency.

Avoid talking about “stranger danger” – and instead talk about stranger safety rules like moving away and checking first. Remember that in emergencies we often need to get help from good people who happen to be strangers (first responders, workers in the store, crossing guards, etc.), and kids need to be able to know when it would be important to go to a stranger for help and how to be persistent in getting help from busy adults.

The right kind of self-defense training can increase the safety and confidence of kids and adults alike and choosing an effective and supportive program is essential.

For more information, go to Kidpower’s website for free articles, workshops, and books about taking charge of safety for yourself, your children, your family, and your community.

Irene van der Zande is the founder and executive director of Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International, a global nonprofit dedicated to providing empowering and effective child protection, social-emotional safety, and self-defense skills and knowledge to all ages, abilities, and walks of life worldwide since 1989. She is the co-author of many publications, including the new bestselling book, Doing Right by Our Kids: Protecting Child Safety at All Levels.