Talking to Your Kids about Sandra Cantu

It's the story everyone is talking about: The horrific murder and alleged rape of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu. People are asking, "How do I keep my child safe? How do I talk to my children about this?" Dr. Michele Borba, educational psychologist and author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions, offers her advice:

Talking to Your Kids about Sandra Cantu:

Kids will ask, "What happened to her? Will I be safe? Why did the lady do it? What do I do if it happens to me?" Kids are egocentric. Remember, a school-aged kid has no perspective of the world and so you have to assume that, to them, this scenario is happening in every neighborhood in the world.

You have to tell kids that Sandra is one little girl, and there are many more kids out there who are not getting abducted. Start by saying it's a sad thing that happened. I would tell kids that the woman who did this to Sandra Cantu did a very bad thing and that she is not a nice person. Depending on the age of the child, I might say the woman who did this was unstable or had something wrong with her.

I would tell kids that Melissa Huckaby took Sandra to her home without her mother's permission or Sandra's permission. I would tell kids also that Melissa forced Sandra to stay at her house and forced her to not be able to go home and that she did some hurtful things to Sandra. We have to be careful with what words we use. It would be safer to say that these hurtful things might have finally killed Sandra, but we have to remember that kids don't have as big a vocabulary as adults.

We give too many details the kids don't want to know. I would never offer details unless a child asks. I would talk about how the police know those details. Parents have to tell kids that they don't have all the answers. Tell kids the cops know the answers to some of these questions, and they are trying to figure out what happened.

If the child asks about the rape, you would ask them what it means to them, because they really don't have any idea.

Methods of Explanation:

It has to be an on-going conversation. You need to talk to your preschool-age kids right up to the daughter you are sending to college. The conversation has to be age appropriate.

You have to be calm and cool yourself so as not to scare your kids. You need to talk to your kids in a matter-of-fact tone. You have to be confident in yourself, otherwise your kids won't buy into it.

You need to start out by providing accurate information. If you don't, someone else will. Ask them what they have heard from friends or the news.

Mistakes Parents Can Make When Talking about It:

I think the biggest mistake parents can make is not talking about it.

If parents are afraid something will happen to their kids, and it starts to affect their stress level, or the way they treat their kids, it will rub off on the kids.

Also, parents make the mistake of telling kids too much. Kids don't need to know all the gory details. In this case, they don't need to know Sandra was raped.

Parents also need to talk in simple terms and be brief.

How to Tell If You Are Being Paranoid:

Your behavior affects your child: You might be affecting them if you suddenly see an atypical behavior in your kids, such as fear, being clingy, sleeping more or becoming withdrawn.

If there is a sudden change in your parenting style: You become over-cautious and you see it changing your kids' social agenda and confidence level.

If your fears are coming out of your kids' mouths: You don't want to get caught in a doom and gloom world. You don't want to get "mean world syndrome" where your kids think everything is dark, and scary and sad.

Teach Your Kids to Be Safe:

Teach them about troublesome situations: cars following them, someone trying to grab them and take them away, someone touching them inappropriately.

You need to be more aware of these situations. Most abductions are made by someone the child knows.

You need to teach kids that the Hannibal Lector thing they have in their minds isn't right. Sometimes bad people don't look threatening.

For teenagers, tell them to use their gut instincts. Whenever you feel uncomfortable in a situation or if something isn't right, then act on it.

To help kids get out of these troublesome situations there are few things we can do: Teach kids to be assertive. Tell them they can bite, kick, yell, throw things and scream. They can drop their things to run.

Teach "No, Run, Tell": say no, run away and tell a trusted adult. Teach kids that if someone does grab them, they need to yell, "This isn't my parent, I need help!" We need to tell our kids to be where they see other kids and adults. Be places you can be seen and heard.


You can reduce the fear by just empowering the child and playing "what if" scenarios. We can teach them to recognize suspicious behavior by role playing. Ask: What would you do if you noticed a car was following you? What do you do if a stranger tells you that Mom and Dad have been in an accident, and they will drive you to the hospital? What is acceptable behavior and unacceptable behavior? Caring touch versus bad touching?

Teach them that no adult needs to ask a kid for help.

We Need to Give Kids a Reality Check:

Point out how there are over 70,000,000 kids under the age of 18 in the U.S., and only 58,200 were victims abducted by non-family members in one year.

Also, there were only 115 kids that were victims of "stereotypical kidnappings," meaning the crime involves someone the child does not know or someone of slight acquaintance, who holds the child overnight, transports the child 50 miles or more, kills the child, demands ransom or intends to keep the child permanently.

Ask your kids if they can name a kid they know who was kidnapped. Most kids can't.

Keeping an Open Dialogue with Your Kids:

  • Encourage your child to talk to you about anything.
  • Start with a rule: We don't keep secrets if someone can get hurt. You need to teach kids if an adult tells you a secret, you need to tell Mom and Dad.
  • Explain to kids the difference between a secret and a surprise (like a surprise party).
  • Come up with a code word so they can say things in front of the people who might be hurting them. This needs to be something unique like "Geronimo."
  • You also need to give the code word to your kids' trusted caregivers. Make sure the kids know who the trusted caregivers are.
  • You need to rehearse what to say to the neighbors if your kids need help and let them know which neighbors they can trust. Make sure they know 9-1-1 will help them.
  • If teens are not coming to you, you need to figure out who they are comfortable going to.

Parents Need to Reduce Their Own Worries:

  • Help yourself by helping your kids learn some anxiety reducers. Deep breathing is a good technique.
  • Take yoga with your daughter. Exercise with your kids.
  • Listen to soothing music with your kids. Walk with your kids. Watch more comedies, less news.
  • Watch the caffeine levels for both you and your kids. Look at ways to sleep better. Find a sleep routine.

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