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Protecting Your Child from Sexual Abuse

It is important to teach children basic safety skills to help keep them safe from potentially dangerous or abusive situations.  One of the challenges for you as a parent is to ensure that even when you are not with your children, they have the knowledge and ability to do the right thing in the worst possible situation.  The information that follows is a guide to help parents talk to their children about personal safety. These conversations can be difficult; however it is helpful to talk about sexual abuse prevention in the context of general safety skills, like teaching children how to cross the street or why it is important to wear a bike helmet.  Ultimately, it is important to make sure that children talk to parents or another adult about anyone who makes them feel uncomfortable, even if it is a family member. Up to 90% of the sexual abuse cases involve a person known, loved and trusted by the child. You can prevent sexual abuse by educating other parents, children and those who work with children.

Here is what you can do as a parent to keep your child safe:

Establish a Safe Environment.

  • Insist that youth serving agencies, schools and programs mandate training and reporting protocols for all staff and volunteers.  Click here for information on the Children's Trust Child Personal Safety Program, Talking About Touching.
  • Check references for babysitters and child care providers.
  • Know who is with your children at all times.
  • Notice behaviors of other adults around your children. Be concerned about:
    • Adults focused on child relationships more than adult relationships.
    • Adults singling out certain children for attention.

Talk about Touching Safety.

  • Be approachable. Assure your children that they can ask you anything, and answer questions in an age-appropriate way:
    • For adolescents: Teens are exposed to the world around them and often know more than parents realize. Also, it may seem like your teen isn’t listening, but give him or her time to absorb, reflect, and communicate in his or her own way.
    • For young children: Use language that he or she will understand and try to use examples s/he can relate to. After talking about a scary topic, younger children may be a little more clingy or fearful. Answer his or her questions without judgment - it is normal for young children to come to creative conclusions!
  • Watch these short videos from Committee For Children, on how to talk to your child about family rules and to never keep secrets.
  • Take advantage of natural teaching moments (long car rides).
  • Read a children’s book about touching safety together:

Teach Personal Safety Rules.

  • Introduce touching rules along with other safety rules, like car, bike, or fire safety.  Review the rules often with your children.
  • Use and teach your children the correct words for private body parts.  When children don’t know the right language to use, they may have a difficult time communicating if something happens to them.  Explain that the body parts covered by a swimsuit are their private parts.
  • Teach your children the difference between a safe touch and an unsafe touch.  Explain the three types of touches:
    • Safe Touches are touches that keep children safe and make them feel happy and safe. Safe touches can include a hug and holding hands.
    • Unsafe touches are touches that hurt children's bodies or feelings and are not good for children.  Unsafe touches can include hitting, pushing, pinching, and touching the private parts. Teach children that these kinds of touches are not okay.
    • Unwanted touches are touches that might be safe but that a child doesn't want from that person or at that moment. Let your children know that if, for example, someone is touching or tickling them, and they want him or her to stop, it is okay to say words that mean NO. Or, if your child is touching someone and they say NO, then your child needs to stop.
  • Explain to your children that no one should touch their private body parts except to keep them clean and healthy. If someone does, that is an unsafe touch and they need to say words that mean NO, get away and tell a grown up.
  • Let them know that they can talk to you any time, for example, when someone  behavior confuses them or when touching or other situations make them feel uncomfortable.
  • Teach your children not to keep secrets about touching and let them know that it is never too late to tell about a situation.

Practice Agreed Upon Rules.

  • Review the Touching Rules often.  Try reviewing the rules with your children by using role-play, problem-solving games, and storytelling. Play “what if” games with your children. Ask them “what” they would do “if” and come up with as many scenarios as you feel they may need to understand the best response.
  • Before your child goes on a play date or to a party practice the rules.  You can say ‘let’s practice what you would do if someone tried to break the touching rules.’

Keep Your Teen Safe. No matter how old your children are, you should continue to remind them to be aware of their surroundings and any people or situations that make them feel uncomfortable. With their new-found independence, they may not think twice when someone stops them to ask directions or make small talk. If they feel even remotely unsure or unsafe about a person or situation, they should call you or tell the closest responsible adult. Give your teens guidance on how to stay safe in public places such as the mall or movies, encourage them to stay in well lit, public places with more people and to have a friend go together with them to the restroom. Finally, talk about harassment and abuse, and remind them that gender and age do not matter when it comes to these things. Finally, even teens can get caught in abusive relationships and dating violence, so teach your child what to look out for, including verbal, emotional, and physical abuse.

Respond to Disclosure. Be alert for signs of sexual abuse. Potential warning signs may include sudden changes of behavior such as increased anxiety, fear of being with a certain person, sexualized behavior, and any type of genital injury or infection.  Older children may also appear more withdrawn from friends and experience a sudden change in school performance. Should your child report to you that someone touched him or her inappropriately, act on your child's behalf. Taking action on your child's behalf will show your child that you will believe him or her. The following steps can help you effectively respond to disclosure:

  • Remain calm.
  • Let your child talk.
  • Reassure your child s/he did the right thing by saying:    
    • I’m glad you told me
    • It is not your fault
    • I am always here for you.
  • Seek help for your child and your family
    • Contact your pediatrician, child's teacher, and/or school principal or counselor with support on what next steps to take to help your child and report the abuse to keep others safe from the same type of harm.

Related Fact Sheets:
Leaving Your Child Home Alone
Keeping Your Teen Safe
Selecting a Babysitter for Your Child
When Your Child Visits a New Friend’s Home

For more information:
American Academy of Pediatrics
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
Darkness to Light
Committee for Children

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