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Starting a Conversation With Your Kids About Sexual Abuse

Apr 20, 2020
Mom reading a book to her daughter

Media coverage of prominent figures in our community involved in sexual abuse cases can be difficult to hear and understand. It is especially shocking when it is a person you know. In about 90% of sexual abuse cases, the victim knows their abuser and it is someone the family trusts*.

How do we approach this conversation with children and explain that one of their heroes or another important person may have taken part in a horrific act? As always, how you talk to children about challenging issues depends on their age.

Talking With Younger Kids

Protect children by role modeling and teaching them about healthy adult-child boundaries from a very young age. The first step is to make sure you are comfortable talking with your child about their bodies and sexuality. 

Teach your child to use language regarding their private parts that other adults will easily understand. A great reference is “My Body Belongs to Me” from the Channing Bete Company. This booklet includes scenarios about behaviors like tickling or touching that can make kids uncomfortable and helps children better define personal boundaries.  

Next, help your child identify safe adults. Ask who they feel comfortable talking to if they are worried about themselves or someone else. A helpful and fun tool is Lauren’s Kids Trusted Triangle worksheet, which helps children name three “grown up buddies” who make them feel safe.

Your child may overhear things and ask about recent events. Let your child lead, making sure you have responded to their primary concerns. Keep your tone light so they feel safe about bringing up this topic.

Cover the basics, without graphic details, gossip or judgement, and explain that this type of behavior is bad and never the fault of an abused child. Ask them, “What would you do if someone made you feel uncomfortable or asked you to keep a secret from me?” You want them to know that if anyone ever touches them, tries to touch them, or asks them to keep secrets that they can come to you or their “grown up buddies.” Remind them they won’t be in trouble for telling.

The goal of these talks with your child isn’t to make them feel fearful or distrusting of adults, but simply one way to role model calm and open communication, to provide ideas on what to do if a situation doesn’t feel safe to the child and to reinforce what a healthy and safe adult-child relationship looks like. 

Talking With Teens

Thanks to social media, teens will likely hear the latest news before their parents. If they approach you with what they have heard or seen in the media, acknowledge that all types of people, including public figures, professional athletes, politicians and mentors can do very hurtful things. And, never are these things the fault of the victim. 

Teens appreciate open communication and transparency, but let them guide the conversation. Encouraging your teen to talk about their reactions provides an opportunity for you to debunk myths, acknowledge their feelings and problem solve about safety.  

Reiterate that you hope your teen will come to you or another trusted adult any time they feel unsafe or something horrible has happened to them, no matter who was involved. Encourage discussion about worries they might have about talking to others about their experiences, and reassure them that you will be there for them no matter what.  

Teens are loyal to their peers. Encourage them not to keep secrets about their friends, because doing so may leave that friend in harm’s way and prevent them from getting help they may need.    

Give them specific tools. Suggest they utilize an “open door policy,” meaning they keep a door open (at home, school or otherwise) when engaging with adults one-on-one. There is strength in numbers, so recommend your teen identify a buddy to keep in touch with while out at an event or sleeping over with a group of friends. When your child teen is going out, ask who their buddy will be. 

Finally, talk with your teen about using a safe word. This is a word or phrase they can say or text if they feel unsafe and need you to pick them up immediately. 

Additional resources on this topic are available through the Darkness to Light website. Be sure to check out the parents section, where you’ll find prevention tools, statistics, tips on talking with kids and more.

For more information about Central Ohio services related to child sexual abuse or family violence, please visit The Center for Family Safety and Healing website.

Featured Expert

Lynn Rosenthal
Lynn Rosenthal
The Center for Family Safety and Healing

Lynn Rosenthal is the president of The Center for Family Safety and Healing (TCFSH), which takes an integrated team approach to breaking the cycle of family violence and child abuse.

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.