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Guarding Against Child Sexual Abuse

Protecting children and promoting their well-being is a responsibility shared by parents and caregivers, professionals and organizations serving children, youth, and the broader military community. You can help keep your children healthy and safe by learning more about sexual abuse and problematic sexual behaviors of children and youth, providing careful supervision, establishing open communication and providing school-age children and teens tools to help keep them safe.

It's normal to feel uneasy talking about this subject or worry about confusing your children, but you can lay the groundwork for safety and prevention with children as young as age 3. Alert parents recognize that child sexual abuse is common, and no child is immune. Child sexual abuse involves the exploitation or coercion of a child for the sexual gratification of another, typically an adult or older child. The National Sex Offender Public Website reports that up to one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused prior to the age of 18.

Despite common concerns about “stranger danger,” most child sexual abuse cases are perpetrated by family members or caregivers known to the child. The dynamics of child sexual abuse are complex. Isolated incidents do occur, but sexual abuse more commonly occurs over time and can continue for years if not exposed by parents or other adults.

Responsible adult supervision is the most important prevention strategy for children of all ages but is especially critical for young children. Parents should take note of changes in their child's behavior and trust their instincts if a situation "just doesn't feel right." Making sure school-age children have accurate information about their bodies, rights and the rules to follow if abuse occurs can also help protect them. Without this knowledge, children are more vulnerable to manipulation and may be more likely to keep abuse secret if it occurs.

Getting started

Talking with kids about sexual abuse should start early and be an ongoing process. Discussions can be casual conversations that take place any time during your normal routine or when your child has a question or comment that gives you an opening. Keep your talks plain and simple and make sure your child knows that he or she can always come to you with questions. Other points to consider when discussing this subject with your children include:

  • Naming body parts: It’s best to use proper or familiar terms, so you can talk comfortably with your children about their bodies. Teach your children the names for their body parts, including private parts or parts that are covered by their swimsuits. You can begin this discussion when you think your child is old enough to understand, usually around age 3.
  • Asking permission: Children need to be taught to ask parental permission before going off with someone, regardless of whether or not they know the person. Given that most abuse occurs with a known person, parents knowing where their child is, who they’re with and what they’re doing decreases the chances of something happening.
  • Learning body safety skills: It is important to instill in your children the knowledge that their bodies are private, belong to them and deserve to be respected and protected. As children learn about their bodies, they need to also learn that they have the right to say no to anyone — even when the person is an adult, a relative, or someone they like and trust.
  • Respecting, "No": For children to have confidence that "no" has meaning, it's important that all members of your family have the same understanding: "No" will always be respected, even when there's no harm intended. Though it may be awkward, teaching your children that they can say "no" to well-intentioned hugs and kisses from others is also important. The right to say no is reinforced when families have clear and openly discussed rules for respecting privacy and personal boundaries.

Teaching Body Safety

When children are a little older, usually around age 5, they can begin to understand the differences between different types of touch. Explain and provide examples of good touch that makes them feel warm, secure and loved. Most touches are good and make people feel good. Things like hugs and high-fives are examples of good touches that kids are typically exposed to.

Likewise, discuss touch that feels bad, hurtful or uncomfortable, like when someone hits, pinches or touches them in a way that doesn't feel good or doesn't seem right.

Keep in mind that not all sexual abuse involves touch. Children can be exposed to inappropriate sexual language, acts or materials for the gratification of the abuser.

  • Keeping Secrets: If another child, older youth or adult engages them in inappropriate sexual conversation or behavior, they may tell the child it’s their secret, or threaten consequences to themselves or family members if they tell. Teach children to trust their instincts and get away from an uncomfortable person or situation as fast as they can. Teach your child that they must always tell you if something like this happens, and they will never be in trouble.
  • Exceptions: Make sure your children understand personal boundaries and rules for body safety and privacy. Discuss special situation like being bathed by a grandparent or examined by a doctor. It is important to remind them that those situations are never done in secret.

Speaking up

Being involved and aware of what’s going on in your child’s world lays the foundation for open communication. Some children are more private or likely to share than others, but practicing open communication increases the likelihood that children will disclose confusing or concerning situations or sexual abuse. If you make a habit of talking to your children about their daily activities, listening to their concerns and caring about their feelings, they'll feel safer coming to you if something happens.

  • Tell a parent or trusted adult: Children need to understand how important it is to tell a parent or another trusted adult when someone or something bothers them. Abused children often keep secrets because they're embarrassed or afraid of upsetting their parents.
  • Let them know it's safe to tell: Abusers often use threats such as, "I'll hurt you if you tell," or "No one will believe you," to keep their victims quiet. If the abuse has been going on for a while, children may be so ashamed about keeping secrets that they continue to keep them. Ensure your child knows that, regardless of what an abuser says or does, they are always safe to come to you with any concern, large or small, at any time.
  • Foster communication: Make sure your children and adolescents understand that you need to know what happened in order to protect them. With younger children, you may need to be more direct and ask them to tell you if someone does something wrong or talks or touches them in a way that makes them feel dirty, bad or uncomfortable. Older children or teens may act out, or resist asking for help, or tell a friend or someone else. Be sure your children understand that when they tell you about something that's happened, you will listen calmly, accept what they say, believe, protect and not blame them.
  • Communicate with children: Keep in mind that children do not always disclose abuse in a straightforward way. They may choose to tell an adult other than a parent. They may only hint at what happened to see what kind of response they get or pretend it happened to someone else. Managing your own reaction to a disclosure of abuse is important because children may stop talking if their parents respond with strong emotion rather than calm reassurance. Ask questions and reassure them that they are doing the right thing by talking to you about their concerns. At every age and stage, all kids need and benefit from attentive, supportive and responsible parents.

Taking responsibility for personal safety

As children get older and begin spending more time in activities without close adult supervision, parents can teach them how to be responsible for their own personal safety.

  • Safety precautions: Talk with your school-age children about safety precautions in a variety of situations where they might be at risk—for example, in video arcades, in locker rooms, during sleepovers or camp, and at any isolated outdoor play areas. Discuss what can happen in different situations, and agree on safety rules for each one. Then check often to make sure that your children are following the rules.
  • Internet rules: Since the internet has become a favorite vehicle for sexual predators, it deserves special emphasis when you talk with children about taking responsibility for their own safety. They need to understand that the perception of anonymity when interacting in cyberspace makes it easier to take risks and participate in inappropriate or dangerous exchanges. It's important to educate yourself about activities popular among young people, such as instant messaging, networking through social media sites and exchanging photos and videos. Establish firm guidelines and find ways to monitor their activities online.
  • Establishing boundaries: As children approach adolescence, they become more aware of and interested in their own sexuality and intimate relationships. You can help by being available to discuss issues and provide resources on topics like healthy relationships and teen dating violence. Take advantage of popular culture to open or keep the conversation going about relationships and sexuality, sexual content in the media, your family's standards of appropriate sexual conduct, and your expectations for your children's sexual behavior with peers.
  • Safety for Adolescents and Teens: As your child becomes an adolescent, stay attuned and aware as they navigate a new world of social and dating relationships. Even when your teenager resists your input or good advice, continue to set appropriate limits, and stress personal safety and responsible behavior. Teens tend to be trusting and may not recognize unsafe situations, unhealthy behaviors, or the potential for dating violence or sexual assault by an older or more experienced person. The model you set, and the relationship and communication you established years ago will provide the foundation for your teen’s growing independence and decision-making throughout the teen years. Introduce online tools to help your teenagers and their friends look out for each other’s safety and well-being.

Organizations working toward ending abuse

Many national organizations dedicated to child sexual abuse prevention can provide you with more information, including how to recognize signs of abuse and what to do if you suspect it. Three such organizations are The National Child Traumatic Stress Network and Stop It Now!

Adults have a moral obligation to protect children from abuse and to take action whether it involves their child or someone else. Speak up if you see anyone behaving inappropriately toward a child, and report suspected abuse to your local child protective services agency or the installation Family Advocacy Program if you're in a military community. You can also call your state's child abuse reporting hotline or the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 800-422-4453 (4-A-CHILD).

One of the biggest ways to prevent or stop uncomfortable or inappropriate sexual behaviors and sexual child abuse is to form a nurturing relationship and create trust and open communication with your children. Talking with your kids helps keep them safe from sexual abuse. You don't need to live in fear of sexual abuse, but you should be informed and your kids should be, too.