Instilling danger awareness in small children is something most parents want to prioritise. Children with autism, in particular, struggle with recognising hazards. Biggest will often get too close to danger – hot ovens, moving swings, big drops. He can become fascinated by movement and has no sense of personal space or whether it is appropriate to approach someone and get close.
Another aspect of autism can be extreme anxiety. These two aspects can make instilling a reasonable sense of danger a complex issue. Recently, Biggest went through a phase of being absolutely terrified of anyone being more than a few feet up in the air. It didn’t matter if they were climbing, up a slide, or even in a television programme – he would become inconsolable. With hindsight, we had probably focused too much on pointing out danger when he was climbing or up high himself. I am naturally anxious and I know his delayed motor skills mean he is more likely to trip and fall than other children. He has an excellent memory which means he really took my warnings to heart. However, instead of helping him recognise danger effectively, they made his anxiety sky rocket.
So how do we strike a balance? It is important to continue helping him learn about danger, but we also need to manage his anxiety. Therefore, here are my top tips for teaching younger children about keeping themselves safe, while managing anxiety. My original idea was generated in relation to autistic children, but these tips could be used for any anxious child. I have sourced ideas from other bloggers who I will credit.
Make safety tips fun
One of my favourite games to play with Biggest we call ‘Otherwise’. It appeals to his love of repetition and helps him memorise safe behaviours while thinking about cause and effect. You take turns with the child, thinking about situations and outcomes that may happen if the safe option is not taken. For example:
“We must not run away in the car park, otherwise…”
The child or parent then answer with a consequence:
“We might get lost!”
You then swap and the child tries to think of one for you to answer.
I have found that Biggest really enjoys this game and the fun element means he is not too distressed by the more stressful outcomes.
Thanks to Andy from Dad’s Sofa for the example of car park safety.
Use Books and Social stories
Social stories are a great tool for helping autistic children understand the world around them. There are a great range of books on the market designed to teach children about so many different aspects of safety.
Use Apps and Technology
Biggest adores technology. He will quickly master a game and know sections of it off by heart within a few days.
We discovered a great game for teaching road safety online. Unfortunately, it doesn’t read the questions to the child, so you have to play along. However, Biggest loved it and I was surprised by how much about road safety he already knew.
Teaching about body safety as well as physical danger
This can be a really difficult subject to broach with smaller children. The NSPCC have a wonderful selection of resources based around the acronym ‘PANTS’ to help explain to smaller children that their body belongs to them and help them talk what to do if someone touches them in a way that upsets them. Thanks to Rebecca from Mummy est. 2014 for this excellent tip.
Simple phrases, little and often.
I have found that it is important to stick to really simple concepts and bring them up fairly often. Phrases like “always look for cars when crossing the road” are ones I find myself chanting whenever we cross a road. Clare from Emmy’s Mummy – and Harry’s too said:
“Whatever you are teaching them, use age appropriate language and don’t complicate things.
Explain why they need to do things such as look both ways before crossing a road and crossing at a safe place.
Don’t expect them to just know why they should do it.
I don’t personally talk about stranger danger per se as they learn by example and see me saying ‘Hi’ to the people in the street. I just talk to them about the bad things which people can do so explain they don’t take sweets from anyone unless I’ve said they can, not to go off with anyone even someone they know unless I’ve told them in advance for example someone else collecting from school.”
Overall, I think it is important to make safety awareness an integral part of routines, without dwelling on them.