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In November, Suzanne Lachmann's 7-year-old son told her a classmate would bring a gun to school and teach her son how to shoot it. / Carucha L. Meuse, The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

Parents are worried, and recent tragedies that involve children have done nothing to ease those concerns.

? 20 children gunned down in December in Newtown, Conn.

? A Chicago 15-year-old who performed during President Obama's inauguration shot in the back in January at a park where she gathered with members of her school's volleyball team.

? A 6-year-old snatched from a school bus and taken hostage in Midland City, Ala., a drama that ended Monday with relief for the parents.

Blogs and discussion boards are full of questions about violent video games, guns at a playmate's home, carpools driven by under-the-influence adults - and other dangers, large and small.

Many parents are tempted to keep their children in a protective bubble, free from all harm.

The task is impossible.

From playdates to birthday parties to the eventual sleepover, kids want - and need - to be kids. But you also need to feel confident that your children are safe and protected, even when they are not in your care.

We've rounded up experts to help you empower yourself and your children to face life in an unsafe world and to share tactics for talking to the parents of your children's friends about your safety rules and concerns.

In November, Suzanne Lachmann's 7-year-old son came home with an exciting story: A classmate said he was going to bring a gun to school and promised he would teach her son how to shoot it.

Lachmann, a psychologist in Rye, N.Y., called the principal at her son's elementary school, who in turn contacted the classmate's parents.

"They were mortified, horrified, and reassured everyone that their son had absolutely no access to the gun," said Lachmann, who was satisfied with the way the situation was handled.

But the incident and the subsequent school shooting in Newtown raised a broader question for Lachmann and parents across the country: How can you assure your child's safety when he or she is not under your care?

Acknowledge reality

The world isn't the same as it used to be.

Nothing made that clearer than Newtown's shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

"Safety issues seem to be front and center every day," said Joel Haber, a psychologist in White Plains, N.Y., who specializes in bully prevention. "We're living in a place where there's much more evil than we ever thought before."

But it's not just violence and bullying that have ratcheted up parents' anxiety. Potential dangers lie everywhere from bike rides without helmets to mall outings without adult supervision.

In particular, life in the suburbs presents its own set of challenges.

"When my children were young, we had a station wagon, and six kids would pile into that flat area and off we would go," said coordinator Sue Larkin of Safe Kids Westchester County, which with Blythdale Children's Hospital in Valhalla, N.Y., runs programs on injury prevention for children.

Larkin, a grandmother now, said she's wised up plenty in the intervening years.

"Everybody's very safety conscious today," she said.

Communicate with your child

When Lena Cavanna's grandchildren visit, they bring all sorts of parental rules and requirements.

"They also know they can't have soda, they have to go to bed at a certain time and there are certain movies they can't watch on TV, so they just don't do it," said Cavanna of Tarrytown, N.Y.

Beth Feldman, a mother of two from New Rochelle, N.Y., encourages her children to talk about their playdates.

"If it's something serious, absolutely I will call the parent and say, 'This is what happened, and I really would appreciate your keeping an eye on them the next time they're together,' just to raise the red flag since they may not be aware," said Feldman, founder of Role Mommy online parenting community.

Parents need to stress to their children that they're loved dearly but that not everyone in the world is kind, said the Rev. Erwin Trollinger, pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in White Plains. When he worked at a community center, he led a program on "stranger danger."

"We taught children they always walked home with a buddy, never by themselves," said Trollinger, a father of four and a longtime foster parent. "We also taught them the police and fire departments were their best friends, and if anybody said anything to them they were uncomfortable about, to scream their heads off."

If Feldman's kids come home from a friend's house and she hears they've been getting into fights with an older sibling or playing endless hours of video games, she'll suggest the next playdate take place at her home.

However, sometimes parents are the last to know about things that happen outside the home, particularly bullying, said Haber, author of Bullyproof Your Child for Life.

"Talk to your kids every day," he said. "Ask open-ended questions - what do they do, who do they hang with, who do they have lunch with - not in an annoying way, but just so your children feel comfortable, and that you're connected to them."

Open communication between parents and children is essential to kids' well-being, said Mona Spiegel, a psychologist and life coach from Monsey, N.Y.

"That's probably the key to all our safety concerns," she said.

"I think the word is trust," Trollinger said. "Building that trust from the time they're small."

Meet the parents

Rules work to a point. Once children start going to friends' houses, it's important to know who's going to be in charge.

"Ultimately, you have to trust the parents you're leaving your child with," said Dr. Alanna Levine, a pediatrician in Tappan, N.Y., and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

If you can't schedule a face-to-face meeting before the first playdate with a new friend, Levine suggests a "prolonged" phone conversation in which parents can discuss food allergies, car seats, computer policies and general safety issues around such potential dangers as swimming pools and trampolines.

One parent once asked Levine, who has two children, if she had a gun in her house.

"At the time I was sort of taken aback and my response was, 'I'm a pediatrician. No, there are no guns in the house,' " she said. But she considers the question reasonable.

"Every parent has a different level of anxiety and different levels of comfort, and the idea is that you need to make sure you feel your child is safe at somebody else's house," she said.

Asking the gun question can be part of a greater discussion about safety issues, said Jennie Lintz, deputy director of the Center for Prevention of Youth Violence, based in Manhattan.

"If a parent were a responsible gun owner, he would appreciate the question," she said. "I don't think anyone wants any child to be hurt in their care."

According to a recent article in TheNew England Journal of Medicine, gun-related injuries in 2010 accounted for 6,570 deaths in children and young people up to age 24.

Above all, don't worry about the sort of impression you're making by asking questions, said Spiegel, the psychologist.

"We're talking about real issues here: a child's physical and emotional health," she said. "We don't worry what the other person thinks."

Trust your gut

Just as kids need to learn to trust their instincts, parents also should rely on their guts.

"Very often in the effort to be nice, we don't follow our instincts. And if we have an intuition that 'I'm not comfortable with my child going to that place,' for whatever reason, that's what we need to trust," Spiegel said.

Lachmann said parents sometimes can get a feel for a new friend's parents by observing that child's behavior. Very often it makes a statement about his or her home environment. If the behavior seems off-putting in any way, it raises legitimate concerns.

Sure, the world is a scary place. And terrible things can happen.

But overprotecting a child - or being a "cockpit parent" who's in control of everything - does nothing to bolster his or her self-reliance, said Haber, whose most recent parenting book is titled The Resilience Formula.

"As kids learn skills, we need to back off," he said. "Kids need to grow up, and our goal as a parent is to help them learn the tools and skills they need to become adults, healthy and functional."

Overprotective parents aren't doing their children any favors.

Kids who pick up on their parents' fears can become highly anxious, have difficulty with separation and become afraid of making mistakes.

"We want children to feel competent as they grow up, to be able to handle the challenges that come their way," Spiegel said. "They can't do that if they feel anxious."

For Lachmann, whose concerns escalated after her son's classmate talked about his family's gun, it's all about remaining vigilant - and asking the tough questions of other parents - without letting worst-case scenarios drive her crazy.

"We were painfully reminded of how easily life can be taken from us,'' she said of the Sandy Hook school shooting. "I think everyone has a heightened awareness of their child's safety."

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Questions to ask

You should ask the parents of your children's new friends several questions before you drop them off for a play date:

  • Do you have a gun in the house?
  • Do you have a swimming pool or trampoline?
  • What safety measures are in place for each of these potential dangers?
  • Will the children be using a computer?
  • What parental controls are in place?
  • Will a parent be home during the visit?
  • If your child will be driven somewhere, you need to find out whether the family has an additional car safety seat when your child is younger than 12. If not, getting a inflatable booster seat that fits into a backpack makes sense.

    If your child is going to be at a birthday party in a public venue such as a restaurant or sports arena, ask if he can be accompanied to the restroom if you're worried about that.

    If your child has food allergy, make sure that the new parent knows.

    Latchkey kids should know to open the door only to friends or relatives who provide a pre-determined password.

    Above all, make an effort to know the parents of your children's friends. If they aren't receptive, maybe your kids shouldn't hang out together.



    Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

    Read the original story: Protecting kids at home, with friends is balancing act

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