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Talking to children about sexual abuse goes beyond teaching ‘stranger danger’

April 18, 2012
If you suspect your child has been abused, act immediately. Either call your local police department, your local rape crisis center, Child Protective Services or the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453), then push 1 to talk to a hotline counselor.

Parents generally teach their children about “stranger danger” from an early age on, instilling in them not to talk to, walk with or take candy from strangers. But statistics show danger often lurks closer to home than anyone would like to imagine. According to numbers provided by the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, the vast majority of children who are sexually abused are abused by someone they know – most often a family member, an adult the family trusts or, in some instances, another child.

As a parent you can help protect your child from sexual abuse by talking to your child about it, starting at a young age.


“It’s essential that parents have a conversation with their children about sexual abuse,” said Kay Knaff, clinical services program manager for Youth Villages, a private nonprofit organization that helps children with emotional, behavioral and mental health issues, as well as children who have been abused or neglected. “This may seem hard to do, but it’s the best way to protect your child. It’s best to start talking to your children about child abuse as early as age 3 or 4.”


Parents should talk to their children about inappropriate touching and other forms of child abuse, and make sure their children know what behavior is right and what is wrong. In addition, Knaff said parents should teach children to say “no” to their abuser if they can, try to get away from the abuser and/or call for help so other people become aware of the situation.

“Child abuse data show that the majority of children keep abuse a secret,” Knaff said. “That means it is even more important that parents not only talk to their children about what child abuse is and emphasize that it is never the child’s fault. Abuse is always wrong, and children should report it to a trusted adult. Parents need to keep the lines of communication open and seek out their children whenever they feel like something is going on with their child or their child is behaving differently in some way from usual.”


To encourage children to report any abuse, parents should let the child know about two or three people designated as safe adults the child can talk to if he or she suffers abuse or feels unsafe. 


“Children need to know who they can talk to,” Knaff said. “They also need to be encouraged to tell what happened to them to more than one person and keep telling until someone believes them and does something about it.”

Knaff also recommends parents specifically teach their children to report any touching that feels uncomfortable or wrong, even if it is by a family member, teacher, coach, church official, youth group leader or another child.

How to talk to your child about sexual abuse:


  • Tell your child about good touch – a hug or a pat on the back – and bad touch – when someone is touching your private areas.

  • Tell your child nobody – no family member, teacher, other child or adult – is allowed to touch him or her in the areas covered by a bathing suit because these are private areas. Exceptions are a parent bathing a young child or helping the child with using the bathroom, as well as a doctor or nurse when examining the child at a doctor’s office or healthcare facility.

  • Tell your child he or she has permission to tell any adult who touches them in their private areas, “No!”
  • Tell your child that if anyone ever touches him or her in any way in their private areas, he or she 
should tell mom, dad and or grandma/grandpa or another trusted person about it immediately.

Other forms of child sexual abuse are exposure to sexual acts or sexually explicit materials not intended for minors, as well as indecent exposure. Children should be encouraged to talk to the designated safe adults any time they feel unsafe.



Get help immediately

If you suspect your child has been abused, act immediately. Either call your local police department, your local rape crisis center, Child Protective Services or the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453), then push 1 to talk to a hotline counselor.

“The best thing you can do for a child who has been abused is to get the child professional help right away,” Knaff said.

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