Rebecca Bailey is a psychologist who has helped families like Jaycee Dugard’s reconnect again after abductions and other abusive situations through a group called Transitioning Families. She is also the co-author of a forthcoming book called Safe Kids, Smart Parents, due out July 2. On May 7, the day after three women who had been missing for about a decade were finally found alive in a home near downtown Cleveland, Bailey talked to TIME about how parents can protect their children from potential abductors and abusers by talking early and often about appropriate interactions with strangers. Ultimately, Bailey says “the inspiration for this book came from Jaycee and her family, and the realization that these non-family abductions often are unpreventable, and nobody should feel blamed.”
How can parents make sure an incident like the Cleveland kidnapping ordeal doesn’t happen to their families?
It’s a terribly scary, anxiety-provoking topic, but the worst thing [for a parent] to do is to stick your head in the sand. We need to help give our kids the skills to deal with a variety of challenges, [from situations] as rare as a stranger abduction or a non-family abduction, to [situations as commonplace as] dealing with coaches and dealing with unwanted approaches—and to be honest—sexual approaches and exploitation.
Can you talk more specifically about how parents should address these topics with their children at each age level?
I look at it as teaching a kid how to swim; you take a kid to the pool, you put them in floaties in the beginning, and then when they’re older, you give them swimming lessons to teach them how to deal with the challenges of being in the water, and then you get a little more comfortable with them being on their own.
Each kid may be at a different developmental stage, but with younger kids, [parents should start by] teaching them to be aware of their environment, like helping a kid know [his/her] address and phone number. But we have [talked to] middle school groups, and it’s unbelievable how many kids in the classrooms will have experienced a scary event and not talk to their parents about it—whether they’ve been followed home by somebody as they were walking home from school or walking to the store. [The scary event] may be as innocuous as a teenager shouting at them, or it could be as sinister as somebody offering them a ride.
We live in this world where there are lots of scary images and events, and sometimes I think parents [mistakenly] believe kids are unaware, and they decide that if you sweep it away, it won’t affect them.
What can young adults do to stay safe when they’re out on their own?
In a few of these non-family abductions, a car has pulled up next to them. If someone pulls over and asks for directions, it’s important that kids, [whether they’re in] middle school [or] high school, understand they don’t need to go up to the car window. They can say, “No thank you,” or “I’m busy,” or say nothing. So the whole point is to take the fear out of these topics that are not necessarily about an abduction, but also about unwanted approaches, dealing with things as explicit as sexual comments in the mall or putting yourself in a compromising position. One of the things we know about exploitation is that sometimes it’s not uncommon for the case to start with what a child thinks is a simple picture by a so-called boyfriend. Then that picture turns up the next day with a note on their cell phone saying, “We’ll take more. We’ll show these to your parents if you don’t do X, Y or Z.”
Talking to children in an age-appropriate way about these topics is really important. [Parents] need to know that these children are aware of media [coverage] around them. Even if parents don’t put on the TV in their home, [kids] are [encountering the news] in the supermarket or on radio, so talk, talk, talk, talk, talk to your kids.