How to Talk to a Child about Abuse

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As adults, we teach children guidelines for bike, water and street safety. Children do not, in turn, become fearful of bicycles, pools and crosswalks as a result of this instruction. Teaching children about sexual abuse is the best way to help keep them safe. Talking with your child regularly about their activities, people in their life and how they are feeling helps lay the groundwork for open, non-threatening conversations to be your norm.

Teach children

  • The real names for their body parts
    This includes private parts so children can talk about things that happen to their bodies in a way others will understand.
  • Not to keep secrets
    Tell your children to let you know if a child or adult plays secret games or tells them something bad will happen if they don’t keep the secret.
  • That adults are not always right
    Tell your children to come and talk to you if they don’t feel right about something a grown up says or does.
  • To tell if something happens
    Let your children know that if they say someone has touched them, you will believe them and not be mad at them. Tell them that you love them and will help keep them safe.

Touching safety

Teach children that touching safety rules apply all the time, to everyone. While rules about strangers are important, it is uncommon for a child to be sexually abused by a stranger. Most children are sexually abused by someone they know and trust.

Approach touching safety in a straightforward way. Repeat simple safety guidelines often:

  • “If you are touched by a person in a way that you don’t feel right about, tell me about it. I will believe and help you.”
  • “Grownups don’t need to touch children in private areas unless it’s for health or hygiene.”
  • “Never go anywhere or get into a car with a grownup you don’t know, no matter what they tell you.”
  • “Trust your inner voice if it’s telling you something doesn’t seem right.”

Body parts

Most people learn names for body parts and functions in this order:

  1. Family words (“pee-pee”)
  2. Slang (“piss”)
  3. Neutral (“go to the bathroom”) and
  4. Finally, medical terminology (“urinate”).

Help children develop a dignified vocabulary for parts of the body (breasts, penis, vagina) so children can express themselves clearly. A good substitute for medical terminology is “private parts.” 

Family rules

Establish your own set of family rules:

  • “Do not let others know if you are home alone.”
  • “Your opinion is important when we try a new babysitter or have a problem with a babysitter.”
  • “You can say ‘no’ to anyone who wants you to break one of the family rules. I will back you up.”
  • “You can ride in a car with ____ or ____, but not with anyone else without asking first.”

Ask “What if?”

Play “what ifs” to practice decision making:

  • “What if you were playing [insert name of someplace you aren’t supposed to play] and a man or woman tried to make you get into their car?”
  • “What if you and I got separated at the store?”
  • “What if someone we know really well touched you in a confusing way and asked you to keep it a secret?”
  • “What if an older person offered you money [or insert name of something the child really wants] if you would break our family rules?”

Teach verbal responsiveness

Help children develop assertiveness. Teach them to respond verbally:

  • “I don’t tell people that.”
  • “I don’t want to be tickled. Could we take a walk instead?”
  • “Leave me alone. I’ll tell.”
  • “I’m not allowed to do that.”
  • “No.”

Teach nonverbal responses

Help them practice responding non-verbally:

  • Taking someone’s hand off them
  • Running or moving away
  • Standing tall, shoulders back, looking the person in the eye
  • Shaking their head

Adults aren’t always right

Teach children that there are certain things that adults, older children and babysitters shouldn’t do.

  • “No one has the right to put their hand down your pants, touch your private parts, force you to touch them or touch your body if you say ‘no.’”
  • “Most adults touch children in appropriate ways, but some adults are mixed up and don’t make good decisions about touching children.”
  • “If you aren’t sure about something a grownup says or does, ask me to help explain it.”

What to say/What not to say

There are things parents sometimes say to children when they are worried about sexual abuse that could make it more difficult for a child to tell the truth. Below is a chart that will help you find the right words to talk to your children about sexual abuse.

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