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Ask the Expert: Sexual Abuse Prevention


Marybeth Dwyer is the Family Support Training Specialist for the Children’s Trust Fund. In this role, she is the trainer for Talking About Touching (TAT) a child abuse prevention curriculum, and provides TAT training-of-trainers, staff and parents. She has one grown son and three grandchildren who are 14 and 12 and 9 years old. Patty O’Connor is the Director of Religious Education at St. Mary Parish in Randolph, and has coordinated the Safe Environment and Abuse Prevention Program for the last nine years. She is the mother of two adult daughters. Sharman Nathanson, LICSW is the Director of Mental Health and Advocacy Services at the Children’s Advocacy Center of Suffolk County. She is the parent of two adult children.

Ask the Expert: Sexual Abuse Prevention

At what age should parents start talking to their child about safe touches? What are some age-appropriate ways to talk to children about child personal safety and body boundaries? For a preschooler? School-age child? Pre-teen? Teenager?

Marybeth Dwyer: Parents can be anxious about speaking to their child about abuse prevention, and when a situation arises within their community, parents sometimes rush to discuss safety with their child. I recommend these discussions begin much sooner.


For infants and toddlers, begin to teach your child the correct words for body parts. It is easy and believe it or not, can even be fun to do! Children like to play that game where they are asked to find their ears, eyes and nose so why stop there. It’s important for children to know the correct terms for their body parts so they can communicate if something happens to them. Use words that a doctor would use like penis for a boy and breasts and vagina for girls. Don’t worry about being perfect, your children will appreciate all the skills and knowledge you give them. This kind of discussion also opens up the door to further communication with your child about other things.

For preschoolers and kindergarteners you may want to introduce the genital areas as private parts of their body. To help them remember, you can say that those parts are usually covered by a swimsuit. By now, your child has probably learned some basic rules. This is a good age to begin to teach them the Touching Rule.” Parents talk to children all the time about general safety like fire safety or why they need to wear a seatbelt while riding in a car. Introduce the “Touching Rule” as another safety lesson. Explain that the “Touching Rule” means that no one should touch their private body parts except to keep them clean and healthy. Then ask your child who keeps them clean and healthy and add a doctor and nurse to the list you hear from your child. You can tell your child that there are just a few people who are responsible for keeping them clean and healthy. Teach your child that if someone breaks the touching rule they need to tell you right way. Also, instruct them never to keep secrets about touching. I would recommend that parents also tell their child that it is never too late to tell someone about a situation that may have bothered them. At this age, it is good practice for families to develop their own list of safety rules and post those rules in an obvious place in the home like on the refrigerator. This helps children remember the family safety rules and can be introduced to those who are visiting. It’s also good idea to let babysitters know that you have family safety rules and show them where they are posted. Plan to include the “Touching Rule” with all your family rules.

With children in Grades 1 to 3, you should continue to practice the touching rule and safety steps with them. Plan to add a new safety lesson about standing up for themselves by learning how to say “no” to unfair and unkind bullying incidents and help them identify where they might go for help. Teach your child that when they say “no,” to use a strong voice, stand tall and look at the other person. If the assertive behavior doesn’t work, tell them it’s okay to ask for help from an adult. Many schools have bullying prevention programs so ask your child what they have learned in school and have a conversation about those ideas.

When children reach Grades 4 to 5, they may begin to spend time alone at home. I recommend that parents teach your child what to do to stay safe while home alone or even if they are in a group setting. Review and practice your family safety rules and add some “what if” situations to that discussion. This will help your child practice how to handle various situations. Continue to have your child practice assertiveness skills and remind them to tell you or another trusted adult about any situation that bothers them.

By the 6th grade, your child may attend public functions so it’s important to help reduce the risk of harm to your child by teaching them new language and skills for getting out of tight situations and standing up to pressure. Teach your child that even though they may feel older, they still need to ask permission first and be clear where they are going, with whom and when they expect to be home. If your child plans to attend a public place like a mall, here are some tips to share with your child:

  • Identify where the exits are located and where the security staff are located.
  • Carry a cell phone or money to make an emergency call.
  • Avoid dark or isolated hallways, loading docks and driveways.
  • Stay with their group and if they split up, arrange for a meeting place and specific time.
  • Walk away from strangers who want to talk with your child or sell them something and don’t give personal information to any stranger.
  • If someone does bother your child, tell them to go to security or an area where there are other adults or ask an employee for help.
  • If plans change, instruct your child to let you know what the changes are so that you know where your child is at all times

Junior high students move about in groups at this age so many of the suggested ideas for students in grade 6 can still apply. It is a good time to introduce a conversation with your child about relationships since they may plan to attend a dance or other social event. Begin to discuss different characteristics of healthy and harmful relationships. Teach your child to recognize an abusive relationship and what to do about it. Ask your child to identify some positive characteristics in relationships they currently have had with a friend or family member. You may hear things like they listen, share ideas and feelings, and they encourage me to have fun. Now, ask your child to identify some negative characteristics of being in a relationship. This time, you may hear things like someone wants to do things that are illegal, makes fun of others, calls people names, spreads rumor or may even carry weapons. Your job here is to begin to raise awareness in your child so they will be able to distinguish between and healthy and harmful relationship while reminding them that a positive person will show them respect and will act responsibly.

Patty O’Connor: Discussions about safe touches should begin at the same time you begin teaching your child about any safety issue. With my own girls, I began discussions with them when they were in preschool. When they were taking a bath, we would identify their private parts as the areas covered by a bathing suit and I would work into the conversation that only a parent/caregiver helping to keep them clean or their doctor, with a parent/caregiver’s permission, is allowed to touch their private parts.

In our Religious Education program, we begin safety lessons in Kindergarten with reminders about all the ways to keep kids safe – walking safety, fire safety, wearing a bike helmet and the “always ask your parents first” safety rule. The discussion continues with other safety rules like safe and unsafe touching. Again, we use the areas covered by the bathing suit to identify the private parts. We conclude our teaching with empowerment techniques such as teaching children how to say “no” with a firm voice and identifying trusted adults to whom a child can comfortably express their concerns. It is important that children know that even if they were touched inappropriate a long time ago, it is never too late to tell a trusted adult.

Because preteens are beginning to have more freedom, it becomes important not only to reinforce the same message, but to also include the qualities of good friendships, how to stay safe while at home alone or while out with friends, as well as defining safe and unsafe touches. Again, the message that they can say “no” leave a situation and always talk to a trusted adult is important. With teens it is time to incorporate the added issue of sexual harassment; define it, how to respond, and the importance of telling a trusted adult.  To sum it up, it is never too early or too late, it is always important to teach your children about safe touching.

Sharman Nathanson: Parents/caregivers actually begin to do this from babyhood perhaps without recognizing it as such. We start by naturally teaching children the names for their body parts during diaper changing, bathing and dressing. It’s important to give children accurate labels for private parts so other people caring for your child will understand them even if you use “cutesy” names for private parts within the family. For children of all ages, the broad message should be about respect for their own bodies, their right to say “no” to uncomfortable, hurtful or confusing touches and to tell a grown-up about any problems.

Preschoolers and school-age children can be taught that the parts of their body covered by a bathing suit are private and that no one should touch them except to help them be clean and healthy. Explain that your child should not keep secrets from you – and the important difference between a surprise (which is eventually told) and a secret.

Beginning with school age children, personal safety can best be taught by using “what if” examples. In this way, children/teens can rehearse how they might handle a situation adding more meaning to the safety rules you have been teaching. And, you create more opportunity for discussion. You can easily include internet safety into these scenarios. Also help children name other trusted adults they could tell if they ever had a problem.

As they become more independent, children/teens need to be reminded that an adult must still know where they are at all times and be updated if plans change.  At a time when a child is seeking more privacy and separation, parents/caregivers face the challenge of keeping communication flowing – especially around safety. Pre-teens and teens who may be dealing with increased peer pressure may need additional skills to stand up for themselves and say “no”.

Will teaching my child about safe touches introduce them to sexual activity?

Marybeth: Children are curious about their body so they may pose a few questions while you are having these talks. I recommend that parents answer their questions openly and honestly. If a child wants to know more, they will continue to ask. Parents do not need to teach their child about human anatomy but parents can, and should, provide the correct anatomical terms for the private parts of their body. It’s a good practice to tell children that the reason parents share this important information is to help provide children with the skills to help keep them safe from dangerous or abusive situations and not to scare them.

Patty: Teaching safety lessons to children including safe touches is not about sex education and sexual activity. Safe touching is about keeping children safe. Lessons begin with defining safe touches, like a hug from a favorite aunt or a pat on the back by your Dad.  Parents can then define some unsafe touches, such as being pushed on the playground. The rules for unsafe touching in relation to inappropriate touching of a child’s private parts are more difficult to address. As hard as it is, we must keep reviewing the safety rules: no one should touch their private parts unless to keep them clean and healthy. If someone touches them in their private parts or wants to play a touching game they should say “no”, get away and tell a trusted adult.  This message is not about sexual activity, it is about safety.

Sharman: There is no evidence that talking to children about personal safety encourages premature sexual activity. In fact, talking about safe touches can lay the groundwork for other important discussions of healthy sexuality or topics of concern for your child.

How should parents and caregivers model healthy boundaries? What are some everyday actions that parents can do to keep their children safe?

Marybeth: Parents can model good boundaries in everyday life, like when they are in the carpool, sports field, at the market or at home. Children learn by watching others, so parents should remember that what they say and what they do can be repeated down the road by their child. Other ways parents can model healthy boundaries is by teaching their child to inform them where they will be at all times. One way parents can model this behavior is to always inform their children and others about their plans and activities so a child can begin to do likewise. Parents want the best for their child so modeling positive and healthy boundaries will provide their children with a good structure and foundation about safety practices and about relationships.

Patty: Once adults become acquainted with teaching children about safe touching, we become more conscious about healthy boundaries even with touches such as tickling, rough play, and congratulatory physical actions. First we must communicate safe boundaries and empower our children to speak with a firm voice if they feel a touch is unsafe. Discussions about safe touching should occur frequently, many opportunities will come up naturally, like reviewing the safety rules before sleepovers, during bath time, or when you’re in the car.

Sharman: Like most of parenting, life lessons are not learned from one big talk! It’s important for parents/caregivers to model respect for boundaries within the family. Here are just a few examples of ways we model healthy boundaries:

  • Personal privacy - Families handle personal privacy in dressing, bathing, and toileting differently. Think about your own household or those your child may visit and talk about privacy with your child. Most children will seek more personal privacy naturally as they age. Some will need more guidance from parents/caregivers and may also need reminders to respect the privacy needs of other family members.
  • Physical affection - Another way to let children know they have a right to say “no” to serious unwanted touch is to support them in everyday relationships. If your child cringes at a kiss from Aunt Mary, consider teaching your child to shake hands or “high five” a hello (even at the risk of Aunt Mary’s feelings). In fact, knowing how to shake hands is a valuable lesson for the future!
  • Physical contact – We give our children feedback all the time about touch. “Wow, what a great hug, I missed you too!” or “I’m going to put you down now, you’re hurting my leg.” We also want to be sure to listen and respond when our children tell us the tickling is too much or the squeeze is too tight so they know they can speak up and adults will listen.

What are some policies, procedures and reporting protocols parents should look for in youth serving agencies to ensure the safety of their children?  How can parents find out if youth serving agencies and programs have the proper policies, procedures and reporting protocol?  How can parents/caregivers encourage child personal safety training for professionals and volunteers working with their children?

Marybeth: Parents should begin by asking if the youth serving organization has a set of policies about safety and how current are those policies? Parents can ask to visibly see a copy of those policies and ask if the agency has had to make any report concerning staff and how was that situation resolved? For childcare settings, parents can contact the overseeing agency such as the Department of Early Education and Care to ask about a particular agency and their history. I also recommend that parents ask for two to three references of parents who have enrolled their child in the agency and then call them all and ask about their feedback regarding the agency. Parents can ask an agency about their internal controls regarding situations and ask when parents are notified of a situation.

Once your child is enrolled in an agency, periodically ask your child what they like and don’t like about the program. Pay attention to your child if they share with you that they don’t want to be around a certain person and ask them why. In addition, parents may wish to speak with agency supervisors regularly to help them know what is happening in their child’s youth serving organization.

Patty: Parents often tell me that they feel embarrassed asking providers questions like these. But, every parent and caregiver has the right and responsibility to ask questions about safety to any youth serving agency. Make a phone call or go and visit.  Agencies in Massachusetts should assure you that all adults supervising children have filled out a CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information). Upon application for work, agencies should have asked for references and followed up on these references. Ask whether professionals and volunteers receiving training on the topic of safety.  For example, the Archdiocese of Boston requires all adults with access to children attend a VIRTUS, Protecting God’s Children Training. This training teaches adults about child sexual abuse, how to identify the warning signs of sexual abuse, and five steps for preventing child sexual abuse.  It is also important for parents to choose babysitters carefully and ask many questions about homes where their children may play.

Sharman: Parents/caregivers should certainly visit any program they are considering for their child and see the program in action while children are present. The Department of Early Education and Care is the MA agency that licenses family-based and center-based childcare centers as well as (non-public school) after-school programs. The license should be posted and indicates that a program and its facilities met state standards for health, safety, supervision and staff training. The DEEC web site has more detailed information http://www.mass.gov/edu/government/departments-and-boards/department-of-early-education-and-care/.
Beyond knowing that a program meets the basic licensing requirements, it’s important to ask direct questions. For example:

  • Staff length of employment? High turnover could be a sign of staff dissatisfaction and is also disruptive for children.
  • What advanced trainings are offered to staff?
  • Are criminal background checks completed on all employees and volunteers?
  • Are parents/caregivers welcome to drop in? Especially programs for very young children should have an open door policy.
  • Can you speak to other parents familiar with the program?

What should parents/caregivers do if they suspect sexual abuse or see something that makes them feel uncomfortable? What steps should parents take if their child discloses or if they suspect that another adult has had inappropriate interactions with their child?

Marybeth: If parents suspect abuse, I recommend, first and foremost, to remain calm and have a conversation with their child. Begin by asking your child what happened and then listen very carefully. Ask appropriate questions to better understand the situation and thank your child for coming to tell you and then tell them you want to help them. Parents may wish to contact their state’s child protective service (in Massachusetts that would be Dept. of Children and Families) and ask the social worker on duty what they should do. Most states have a social worker on duty 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The social worker may suggest you call your local law enforcement or suggest that you seek professional help for your child. It may be a good idea for parents to receive help for themselves too. Any situation where abuse is suspected can be very difficult for a family so by seeking help for the child and parents can help a family begin to heal from the circumstance. While parents can’t promise children things will get better right away, they can promise to always be there to listen to their child’s concerns. Make sure that your child knows you will be there to talk to about anything and to listen to all of their concerns.

Patty: If you suspect that your child has been sexually abused, I recommend you schedule a visit to your Pediatricians office. The Pediatrician will assess the situation and respond with referrals, if needed. If your child discloses sexual abuse, remain calm and let your child tell you what happened. If your child is not able to tell you or does not want to give details, don’t push them, trauma trained therapists will work with your child to feel comfortable and safe enough to discuss the abuse when they are ready. Some children may hold back, but counseling can help.  Of course you will be feeling a tidal wave of emotions, but overreacting with those emotions during this time will not be helpful. The best way you can help your child after a disclosure is to assure them you will keep them safe, see your pediatrician, contact local authorities, and follow-up with the counseling your doctor recommends.

Sharman: Our natural desire to believe the best about others might cause us to mistakenly discount or minimize our suspicions. However, parents/caregivers should trust their instinct if something about a person’s behavior with a child makes them uncomfortable. In a school or other group care setting, bring your concerns to the attention of the leadership and be specific.
If your child discloses abuse:

  • First remain calm. It may be hard to do, but a child might stop talking or take back what he/she said if sensing a strong reaction.
  • Listen without passing judgment. Because most often abusers are someone the child knows, he/she may have confused feelings about the abuser.
  • Keep in mind that it is common for children to delay telling anyone about abuse.
  • Tell your child you are glad he/she told you.
  • Assure your child that abuse is not his/her fault.
  • Do what you can to make certain your child is safe from further abuse.
  • Take care of yourself and reach out for support.
  • Do not investigate yourself or ask questions. Call police or local child protection services.

If you suspect another adult has behaved inappropriately, but your child has not disclosed, take steps necessary to protect your child by eliminating unsupervised contact with that person. Children are even more likely to remain silent about abuse as long as they are still in contact with the abuser.

Mandated reporters are individuals when in their professional role are required by state law to report if they suspect a child under the age of 18 is being abuse and/or neglected, the list of Massachusetts mandated reporters can be found at the Department of Health and Human Services.  Since there are mandated reporters, a sex offender registry, and also CORI checks in Massachusetts, isn’t that enough to keep children safe?

Marybeth: While we would all like to believe that because we have strict laws surrounding mandated reporting policies and procedures in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts there would be no need for worry, but I write this to tell parents that, unfortunately, abuse can and does happen in all communities.  All too often, we hear on the news about another case of suspected child abuse and when interviewed, neighbors are usually surprised to learn of the suspect since they seemed so caring and maybe were an outstanding teacher or youth worker. And, it is not all that uncommon to learn that a perpetrator has had multiple victims before they are stopped. I recommend that parents be proactive and teach their children safety rules and give them permission to tell an adult if something has happened to them or if they experienced what they believed was an unsafe or dangerous situation. Just like teaching our children how to cross the street safely and buckle up their seat belt before a car is put in drive, parents can and should teach their children safety skills for those confusing and rarely spoken about situations that involve unsafe touches.

Patty: No, it isn’t enough to keep children safe. Not every perpetrator of sexual abuse has been arrested and charged with the crime; as a result a CORI would not list this individual as a sexual offender. Also, CORI reports only show crimes where you appeared before a judge in Massachusetts. So, for a person with a criminal record in another state, that information will not show on their CORI in Massachusetts. In addition, not every state has the same rules for mandated reporters, so for example something could happen at a youth serving agency outside of Massachusetts that does not require adults supervising youth to be mandated reporters. No parent or caregiver wants to take that chance! 
Sharman: These steps are all in place to intervene once abuse is reported and to prevent further abuse by known abusers - they are all critical. But, our hope is for parents/caregivers to educate their own children and speak up in their own communities so abuse can be detected and safety restored even earlier. I always stop short of saying that we can totally prevent abuse from happening, because unfortunately abuse can still occur even when parents/caregivers are being diligent. With more communication on this issue, hopefully children will feel they can tell their parents/caregivers anything and parents/caregivers will feel better able to help.

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