Children who say no, run away or call for help are more likely to avoid being abducted by strangers than those who lash out, a new study from the University of Portsmouth has found.
The paper published today examines the resistance strategies used by schoolchildren aged between two and 17 who have been involved in attempted abductions by strangers in the UK between 1988 and 2014.
Co-written by Craig Collie and Dr Karen Shalev Greene from the Centre for the Study of Missing Persons, the research found that children who tried to physically resist abduction were more likely to be taken.
Lead author Mr Collie said: “The findings are surprising because they show that being assertive and saying ‘no’ is far more effective than lashing out and trying to physically resist an attempted abduction.
“In cases where children have tried to fight against their abductor, the offender has often become violent in order to restrain the child.
“Forceful verbal resistance seems to be successful because it’s likely that the victim will attract some kind of attention, which increases the chances of the offender being detected and a suitable guardian appearing.
“It also communicates to the offender that the child is not going to comply. Child grooming offenders are much more likely to target vulnerable children who they believe will go along with their desires so if a child is verbally defiant, the illusion of consent or complicity is broken.”
The researchers analysed 78 cases of stranger child abduction in the UK, examining newspaper articles and legal cases to compile a database of offenders whose crimes had taken place in the UK.
Mr Collie said: “Although the findings show that physical resistance isn’t effective, that’s not to say it can’t be useful.”
The study also found that children who were polite to strangers by making excuses or giving false information – for example, ‘my mum won’t approve if I go with you’ or ‘I need to be home by a certain time’ – were also not effective in resisting abduction.
Co-author Dr Shalev-Greene said: “Children are so often encouraged to be polite but in situations which make them feel uncomfortable, perhaps we should be teaching them to be forceful and assertive.
“This research is only based on a small sample of cases but it does have implications for child safety education. We want the findings to inform what messages should be shared with children about the risks posed by strangers and how to stay safe.”
The study also found that male victims were far less likely to fight back than female victims.
Mr Collie said: “Discovering that female victims were more likely to lash out than male victims was quite astonishing and contrary to what you might expect. It could be to do with the fact that the male victims in the study were slightly younger and therefore perhaps they didn’t have the same maturity and confidence.
“We also found that girls were more likely to use lots of resistance techniques at the same time, like calling for help, verbally resisting and running away. A mix of techniques was by far the best way to resist abduction.”
The study is published in the Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling.
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