Self-defence ‘moves’ are not the answer to staying safe from abduction

This week the Daily Mail ran an article on how three self-defence moves could keep children safe from abduction. This kind of material is pretty commonplace online, particularly in the US, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to see it surface here in the UK.

There are, apparently, some simple yet effective ‘moves’ which even young children can deploy if confronted by a would-be abductor. When grabbed by the wrist a simply twist of the arm can be sufficient to loosen an attacker’s grip and present an opportunity for escape. When approached from the front and grabbed by the neck, a kick to the groin followed by a ‘double hammer strike’ to the forearms will do the trick. A bear hug can be averted by a heavy ‘stomp’ to the foot of the perpetrator.

The techniques are demonstrated by a martial arts instructor with the assistance of an 11 year-old girl. It’s noticeable that the demonstrations take place in a controlled environment – it looks like a gym, and in what might best be described as a slow-motion, ‘acting’-style, demonstration mode. The instructor gives the child plenty of time to execute her moves and duly performs the role of the thwarted abductor.

There is, of course, a reality problem.

First, the vast majority of attempted abductions involve minimal physical contact. They rely on lures. Offenders try to trick their way into getting children to comply with their wishes rather than using force. Teaching children how to avoid abduction must first and foremost be about how to respond to words, rather than physical force.

Second, in real life, physical resistance is rarely effective on its own. Craig collie, Lecturer at the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies at the University of Portsmouth has recently published a paper on exactly this subject. Real life abductors are (in the vast majority of cases) going to be a lot physically stronger than their target. They’re not necessarily going to give a child time to perform an arm twist or foot stomp and – if they do, and the abductor is determined enough – this might just as well lead to an escalation in the use of force.

Richard Pomfrett – founder of Stay Safe Workshops and himself a martial arts instructor – is clear about the limitations of teaching children physical self-defence moves as a means of avoiding abduction. As Richard demonstrated to me earlier this year, with the help of a class of primary school children, the most powerful self-defence mechanism that children have at their disposal is their voice. Whilst a physical confrontation is very likely to be one-sided, most parents and teachers will attest to the impressive volume that even young children can achieve. Teaching them to shout for help, and to persist, is a serious impediment to abduction. (To return to the Mail article, I doubt shouting ‘fire!’ makes precious little difference from shouting ‘help!’: the key is surely to make a noise that communicates the urgency of the situation and to persist until help arrives).

I’m not at all suggesting that children learning self-defence is a bad thing. Quite the opposite. I’m sure self-defence classes provide children with a whole variety of benefits, not least boosting their confidence and self-esteem. It’s just that when it comes to avoiding abduction we have to be clear on the priority messages and skills to give children. And ‘moves’ are well down that list.