How to Help Your Children Protect Themselves From Sexual Abuse
Promoting the safety and well-being of children is first and foremost an adult responsibility. Children are trusting and innocent, and depend upon adults to nurture, guide and protect them. Parents and community members help by being informed, attentive and supportive of children.
You may be surprised to know that a child’s secure attachment with a trusting, nurturing parent or other significant adult, may be the most powerful child abuse prevention tool. Parents who understand and appreciate their children and are actively involved in their lives are more apt to sense when something is wrong.
You may also be surprised to know that talking to your children about their bodies can help protect them from uncomfortable touch, boundary violations or abuse. The earlier you start, and the more often you reinforce the message, the better. It’s easy to start with young children by naming their genitals along with other body parts. As they get a little older, teach them about “private areas” - generally those covered by a swimsuit - and discuss who has permission to touch them under what circumstances. Tell them to trust their instincts if they are uncomfortable with anyone's touch, whether a peer, older child or youth, or adult. Let them know this is a secret that should never be kept. You or another adult must know so you can help and stop the abuse.
Parents of school-age children can help prevent unwanted touch or abuse by establishing clear family rules for safe touches and reviewing them often.
Empower your child
Help your school-age children protect themselves by trusting their instincts, being assertive, and taking prompt and decisive action:
- Teach them to trust their feelings. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
- If they feel uncomfortable or confused, or dislike the way someone approaches, interacts, threatens or touches them, tell them to get away as soon as possible.
- Coach them to forcefully say, "I don’t like that,” or “Stop touching me."
- Make sure they know to tell you right away. If you aren’t available, tell another trusted adult. If that adult doesn’t believe them or take action, tell another adult.
- Assure them that you can handle anything they tell you – you will always listen, believe them, and calmly take appropriate action.
- Most importantly, teach them that it is never a child's fault if another child, teen or adult is doing something wrong.
Role-playing is a great way to start a conversation about touch. Through role-play, you and your children can practice the rules for safe touches.
Teach and Practice the "What if?" Game
Have your child practice responding to dangerous situations with a question-and-answer game called "What if?" Here's how to play:
- Start by asking your children age-appropriate questions. Then, discuss and provide the correct answer. Remember that younger children require simpler explanations than older children. Focus on making sure they understand the answer and why it's important.
- Next time, ask your children the question and wait for them to respond. Calmly supply the answer when they forget any part of it.
Play this game often – in a low-pressure manner – until your children learn the answers without your prompt.
Get started with these questions
Here are a few "What if?" game questions to start with:
- What if someone touches you (even someone you know) in a way you don't like?
- What if a grown-up (even someone you know) gives you a big hug, or touches you in any other way that makes you feel bad or creepy?
- What if they offer you something you really want, such as candy or a toy, to keep touching a secret?
- What if they tell you that they will hurt you or someone you love if you tell anyone?
- If someone is bothering you at school or in the neighborhood and I am not around, whom should you tell?
- What if someone you tell doesn't believe you or gets mad at you?
- What if an adult says or does something to you that's wrong and then tells you it was your fault? What if they tell you I will blame you, punish you, think you’re dirty or disgusting, or not believe you?
In addition to role-playing, you can begin practicing other techniques with your children to help them understand sexual abuse and what they must do to protect themselves. Talk to your child about body safety, personal boundaries and sexual abuse.
As They Grow
- Try a variation on the “What If?” game for pre-teens or teens by asking what they would do to help their “friend” or “someone at school.” Ask them for their input or opinions about related news articles or social media. Share online articles from sources such as Love is Respect and That’s Not Cool, to start a conversation or discuss issues related to healthy, respectful relationships as well as issues relating to dating, safety and sexual assault by peers, older teens or adults.
Contact your Family Advocacy Program information, supportive counseling or specialized resources to assist you, your child or family. Check out parent tips on technology use for children, resources to keep teens safe online and online self-help tool for preventing child sexual abuse.