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How to Talk With Your Child About Sexual Abuse

Protecting children and promoting their well-being is a shared responsibility across the military community. As a parent, you have a unique opportunity to initiate conversations with your child that will enhance their safety throughout their stages of development. By learning more about child sexual abuse ‒ how it happens and who can place your child at risk – you will be able to better recognize the signs that something may be wrong.

The best way to start is simply by talking with your child. Establishing open communication with your child and encouraging them to come to you with questions about any topic can help to keep them safe. It’s normal to feel uncomfortable talking about sexual body parts with your child, but you can lay the groundwork for safe interactions that can help to reduce their risk of sexual abuse.

Understanding child sexual abuse

Despite common concerns about “stranger danger,” most child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone known to the child, such as a family member, neighbor or caregiver. The dynamics of child sexual abuse are complex, as often times the abusive adult takes advantage of a child’s trust and lack of awareness of sexual acts. Isolated incidents do occur, but sexual abuse more commonly takes place 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 a secret if it occurs.

How to get started speaking to your children about abuse and personal safety

Talking with kids about sexual abuse should start early and be an ongoing process. This can be a casual conversation that takes 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:

  • Accurately naming body parts: It is imperative to call all body parts, including sexual body parts, by their proper name, when talking to 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.
  • Teaching children to ask permission: Children need to be taught to ask parental permission before spending time unsupervised with another person, regardless of whether or not you know the person. Given that most abuse is perpetrated by someone already familiar to the child, parents knowing where their child is, who they’re with and what they’re doing can reduce risk.
  • Teaching body autonomy: 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. Teach your children that it is even okay for them to object to the touch of a healthcare provider if for some reason they are alone in a medical examination ‒ though unsupervised care should rarely, if ever, occur.
  • 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 uncomfortable, teaching your children that they can say “no” to well-intentioned hugs and kisses from others, including relatives, is important. Teach them also to accept “no” from other children and adults with empathy and kindness. The right to say and accept “no” is reinforced when families have clear and openly discussed rules for respecting privacy and personal boundaries.

How to teach children about body safety

When children are a little older, usually around age 5, they can begin to understand the differences between different types of physical interactions. Explain and provide examples of good touch that makes them feel warm, secure and loved. 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. Consider how technology plays a role in creating added risks for children to be exploited by adults over the internet and how to support their cyber safety.

Remind your child that nothing should be a secret – whether it is an uncomfortable situation that has happened in the past, or any future interactions with both unfamiliar and trusted adults. Do this by talking to your child about:

  • 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 that sharing an uncomfortable experience with you, their parent or guardian, is always the safest thing to do, and they will never be in trouble.
  • Exceptions: Make sure your children understand personal boundaries and rules for body safety and privacy. Discuss special situations 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.

How to encourage children to speak 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 concerning situations that may potentially be 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 even as they grow older. You can reinforce why healthy parent-child communication is so important by:

  • Helping your child know when and why to confide in 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. Child victims of sexual abuse may keep the abuse a secret because they’re embarrassed or afraid of upsetting their parents. Let them know it’s safe to tell.
  • Fostering 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, resist asking for help, or tell a friend instead of an adult. 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.
  • Understanding how young children may communicate trauma: 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.
  • Helping children and youth promote personal safety: As children get older and begin spending more time in activities without close adult supervision, parents can teach them strategies to promote their personal safety.
  • Safety precautions: Talk with your school-age children about safety precautions when they are in a new environment, especially if they are meeting new people. Remind them that it is always okay to come to you if a new experience, activity or setting makes them feel uncomfortable for any reason. Establish a plan for them to contact you in the event they feel unsure or unsafe and are away from you.
  • Internet rules: Since the internet expands access to unsafe adults and exposes your children to content that may be inappropriate or even exploitative, it deserves special emphasis when you talk with children about ways to minimize risk when they participate in online activities. 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 online activities popular among young people, such as Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok and exchanging videos through YouTube. Establish firm guidelines and find ways to monitor their activities online.
  • 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, including sexual abuse, if they are in a relationship with an older teen. The model you set and the relationship and communication you established years ago will provide the foundation for your child’s growing independence and decision making throughout the teen years.

Military and national organizations working toward ending abuse

Despite these precautions, child sexual abuse can still happen – even within the close-knit military community. In these cases, your military family can always reach out to your local installation’s Family Advocacy Program for professional help as part of its mission to prevent and respond to abuse and support the safety of everyone within the military community. You can also contact Military OneSource by phone or online chat to be connected to resources that advise and assist with any military family situation.

There are also many national organizations dedicated to child sexual abuse prevention that can provide you with more information, including how to recognize signs of abuse and what to do if you suspect it. Two 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. You can also call your state’s child abuse reporting hotline or call or text the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 800-422-4453.

One of the most effective ways to prevent child sexual abuse is to form a nurturing relationship and create trust and open communication with your children. Talking with your kids helps keep them safe.

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