Remember those quiet moments with a baby sleeping in your arms, wondering how you could feel anything but gratitude for them? Eventually that peace gets nudged aside while you scrub permanent marker off your sofa, apologize to neighbors for broken windows, and try not to panic when they stop answering the phone after missing curfew.
Parenting is no joke. You want to teach your kids to respect boundaries, so naturally you need to enforce some rules. But you don’t want them to put themselves at risk because they’re afraid of getting in trouble, which is why I’m a fan of exit strategies.
What is an Exit Strategy?
Do families still play Monopoly? There was the space on the board that sent you directly to jail – a real frustration – but the game makers included a possible escape: The get-out-of-jail-free card. That’s the idea behind an exit strategy for your family, but instead of hoping for a lucky card, you build it into the culture of your family.
When your child ends up in a tricky, dangerous, or uncomfortable situation, no matter how they got there, you want them to know how to get out of there. An exit strategy is a plan you have practiced at home that your child can use to leave a situation they don’t want to be in. It requires planning, trust, and communication, and I have never known a family that couldn’t make it work.
Let’s imagine your child is at a friend’s house, playing Minecraft. Somehow the screen goes from building farms and mining gems to watching videos that make your child uncomfortable. They know the videos don’t support the values of your home and they want to leave, but they don’t want to stand out. Once you create your family’s exit strategies, your child will know they have a way to get your help without risking trouble at home or embarrassment with their friends.
How can you develop your exit strategy?
One of the most common approaches is to agree on a code word or phrase. When their friends started watching videos that made them feel unsafe, your child would be able to call or send a text message, even from a borrowed phone. When they use the code word you will know they’re asking for your help to get out of a tricky situation.
A few years ago some families started using the letter X to do the same job – a text message from your teen with just an X acted as a request for you to call, interrupt, and let them blame their parent for their sudden departure. The trouble there is that the friends who may be pressuring your teen probably know what an X text means, and the goal is to get out of the situation without triggering social pressure.
I like using code words. In our Instagram community someone used the word mangoes -- not likely to be part of regular conversation, and not exactly screaming “I am a code word!” You can practice in advance, but if your family knows that a text like, “Hey did you get more mangoes at Costco?” is a request for help, you’re well on your way.
Not just for kids with phones
Exit strategies like this one can even be adapted for young children. Have a code word for when they need to talk to you about something important, or want to leave a playdate or family gathering. You are planting seeds that YOU are a safe person who can help them navigate any situation.
The rules apply to parents AND kids
One of the trickiest things about parenting is knowing how to respond when two values bump into each other. Adopting an exit strategy like this means agreeing to prioritize safety over other important values – and that doesn’t always come naturally!
Getting back to the Minecraft example, what if your child didn’t ask permission before going to the friend’s house? What if they actually lied about where they were going and then found themselves in a bad situation? Your top priority is their safety, but if they’re afraid of punishment they may not feel safe enough to ask for help.
As a parent, the ground rules for exit strategies are simple: no lecture, no pressure, no prying. Thank your child for trusting you to help them, then honor the agreement and give them room to lean toward you with more information. If they feel they can trust you to hold up your end they will be more likely to invite you into the details – but you shouldn’t expect it.
With younger children, you may want to invite more discussion about the exit so you can help avoid similar situations, but there cannot be punishment or shame. If you convince them to share and then
An exit strategy is a bid for trust and connection, one that is very vulnerable for children, tweens, and teens. Feel grateful for the trust they showed by asking you for help – then stifle the instinct to discipline, teach, or pry. Your primary value is their safety, and you are honoring it!
Practice, practice, practice
Once the plan is ready, practice! Roleplay different scenarios with your child. Brainstorm potential pitfalls and work through them ahead of time. Practice ways to send messages with the code word that will feel natural when they’re facing something scary. Think of a few backup people who can be safe to reach out to in case you aren’t available, then make sure they understand the strategy so don’t actually drive to Costco looking for mangoes. The more you practice together the more comfortable your kiddo will be using these strategies when a stressful situation pops up. They know that they can count on you to help them navigate any tough situation that comes their way.
If you'd like a fun and foundational tool to prompt you on developing exit strategies and other sexual health topics for your kids, check out our Sexual Goals for Parents PDF. You'll also find prompts for valuable conversations and goal settings on things your family's definitions for sexual health, answering their curiosity, and family safety and passwords. Your $3 purchase helps give me and my team permission to keep creating content our culture needs to boost sexual health in all facets of our lives.