It’s one thing to remember to use good situational awareness and make wise decisions about safety when you are out by yourself. Add children to the mix, and it becomes a whole new level of complexity — especially considering ages and what the limitations or capabilities might be.

Unfortunately, we never know when a violent encounter may occur. It could happen when we’re walking alone to our parked vehicle or it could unfold as we’re enjoying a family outing at the local shopping mall. And while it’s a smart idea to talk things through and plan ahead with your kids, there are no right or wrong answers on how to react and respond … except to do what you need to do to stop the threat and to keep your loved ones safe.

Prepare Mentally

In my family, we have three children — ages 17, almost 10 and 6. We have been training all of them since they were little to stay close to us when we’re out. They also know to avoid questionable or uncomfortable situations and to be aware of their surroundings, taking notice of who or what might be in the area. Of course, my husband and I haven’t brought our kids up in a world of fear and paranoia. But we have done our best to teach them to be cautious and prepared and to realize that not everyone out there is a friend or a good person.

Beyond teaching kids to watch for people they don’t know and to make sure strangers aren’t getting too close to them, you can also help them look for exits and find barriers that could be used for cover or concealment. Make it a habit. Even make it a game! Whenever you sit down at a restaurant, quiz the kiddos about where the exits are. See if they noticed something other than the door you used to get in. Or just ask them some awareness questions to see if they are truly observing and paying attention. Ask: What color is the server’s shirt? Did he/she have on a name tag? Was he/she wearing glasses? How many other people are here? Which way is the restroom?

Just keep in mind that if you’re ever faced with a dangerous situation and you can’t exit the area together as a family, your children need to understand to escape to safety and call the police or get help. With this, you can also teach the older kids to carry, guide or help the little ones. (And make sure the children learn details like their home address, phone number and parents’ names as soon as they are able.) And if the tweens or teens happen to have a cell phone with them, then you have the means to communicate and regroup later on.

Act Quickly

Even though you can’t map out a safety plan for every possible situation every single time you’re out with your family, you should be prepared to act immediately and resourcefully. Whether you’re involved in an attempted carjacking, a robbery, a kidnapping, a mass casualty event or any kind of violent attack, be sure to act quickly. React with whatever tools you have — be it a purse, a stick, a nearby chair, your hands, your legs or a firearm. Use whatever means you have (physical and psychological) to fight back.

If your children are snatched by an aggressor, make sure they understand that it’s okay to shout, “No! Leave me alone!” Teach them to jump into action and yell, scream, punch, kick, hit or do whatever is necessary. You can also talk to them about looking for weak or sensitive spots and to use tactics like poking a bad guy in the eyes; punching or kicking him in the nose, throat or stomach; or hitting him in the knees, ankles, wrists, etc. Be sure to explain to your children that you give them permission to NOT be polite, quiet or nice in a violent encounter, but to do whatever they need to do to get away.

Act Wisely

As a parent, my first instinct is to grab my children and pull them close to me. That’s perfect to help with a boo-boo, to calm them during a storm or to get them away from a scary animal. But it’s a bad idea if someone is coming at you with a weapon.

While it may feel like you’re doing the wrong thing, you may have to push your baby’s stroller behind a wall or set down that infant carrier by a tree and run in the other direction. In some cases, your precious cargo may be safer left in a car or hidden in a nearby building. You might think that you are acting as a shield for your loved ones, but it’s best for them to get to safety as quickly as possible. And don’t pull your children into you or try to hide them behind you while you are attempting to defend yourself unless that’s your only option.

Plan Ahead

We might not have all the answers, but taking precautions now can help protect you and your children in unpredictable circumstances. Use your best judgment and experience. Do what’s right for your situation. Have a course of action for you and your family to take in the event of an unsafe situation.