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Discussing the Dangers

After her parents warned her about talking to strangers, Hannah Dawson, 5, of Columbus, WI, started to have nightmares about being kidnapped.

"I think I overdid it," says her mom, Mary Kate. "She used to talk to anyone she saw, and I needed to explain that there are bad people who take children away from their parents. I didn't mean to frighten her."

When discussing safety, how much can you say to your child without scaring him? Some guidelines:

Gauge his personality. A kid who's always needed a little extra discipline to stay safe may also require more info about the possible consequences of dangerous behavior. You might have to explain that playing with matches could burn down the house, while another child will get the message if you say, "It's not safe; you could get burned."

Spare the gory details. It's important for a 5-year-old to know that fooling around near a running lawn mower is dangerous, but forgo graphic warnings about severed limbs.

Make it a normal part of life. Present a new safety rule by comparing it to those he's already comfortable with, such as the importance of wearing a bike helmet or life vest.

Give him a game plan. Together, come up with some ways he can feel in control in a given situation: For example, if you're talking about what to do if someone he doesn't know tries to talk to him on the school playground, tell him to run to his teacher or the principal, who'll keep him safe. If he's worried about being caught in a fire, remind him that he knows how to stop, drop, and roll.

Take him seriously. He'll get over his fear faster if you let him talk about it, even if it seems farfetched to you. Brushing aside a worry with "That's ridiculous" won't help. You might wish you could say, "It'll never happen here," but be honest. Say, "It probably won't ever happen, but you'll know what to do if it does, and then you'll be okay."

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