Sexuality Resource Center for Parents: Tools, Tips, and Tricks for Teaching Children about Human Sexuality

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse includes the following behaviors:

    • Being forced to touch or look at someone’s sexual parts.
    • Someone touching your sexual parts without your consent.
    • Being forced to look at pictures or videos of sexual parts or sexual acts.
    • Being forced to have sex with someone (rape).

What Parents Can Do to Prevent Sexual Abuse

We tend to warn our children about dangers with unclear statements and by talking to them only once. Children learn through repetition, each time picking up just a little bit more. Talking about sexual abuse should be treated like learning about any other form of danger – the focus should be on safety, not sex. Here are some of the things you can do to keep your children from being sexually abused:

1. First and foremost, you need to establish a trusting relationship with your child so they will feel safe talking to you about anything. Establishing such a relationship is an on-going process – it should have begun when your child was an infant and it will probably never end. If you do not have this kind of relationship with your child, now you have one more reason to start one.

2. You must also do everything you can to increase your child's self-esteem. This may be another aspect of parenting that never ends, but if your child has high self-esteem, they are less likely to succumb to manipulation and more likely to say "no" to unwanted touch.

3. Before you talk with your child, practice what you're going to say about sexual abuse.

4. Teach proper names for all body parts. Using vague or made-up words for the genitals conveys the impression that there is something "wrong" with them. And in cases of sexual abuse, there are three other reasons for the correct naming of body parts: first, research has shown that when a child knows the correct words for private body parts, they are more likely to report sexual abuse, if it occurs, than when the child doesn’t know the correct words. Second, using correct words is important when abuse is being investigated, and finally, if you can't name what happened, you can't create distance from the event. That distance is necessary in order for a child to recover from sexual abuse.

5. Information must be given clearly and directly. Do not assume your child is getting "the right idea." Ask them to repeat back in their own words what you've said to see if they understand.

6. Tell your child that their bodies belong to themselves and that they have a right to say "no" to unwanted touch. You may not realize it, but you are probably already giving mixed messages on this subject – have you ever told a balking child to kiss some relative who gives wet, slobbering kisses? Or have you ever told a child to accept a hug from some relative whom the child doesn't even know? You're going to have to let your child decide whom they want to hug and kiss.

7. Strong, clear, gut feelings may be the best warning signs of sexual abuse. You need to recognize and legitimize these feelings – listen to your child when they talk about the "uh-oh" feelings, the "yucky" feelings, or the "funny" feelings in their stomach. When a child says they don't like someone, don't automatically say, "Oh, yes you do." Find out why they don't like the person. Teach your child to trust their feelings – that if something feels wrong, then it is wrong. Remember, the same behavior may be abuse in one situation, and nothing more than affection in another (for example, kissing can be good or bad, depending upon the circumstances and the persons involved). That's why it's important to focus on feelings and not behaviors.

8. When explaining sexual abuse to your child, tell them it may be when they are forced or tricked into touching someone else's genitals or having their own genitals touched, it may involve looking at pictures, picture-taking, or undressing, or it may be when someone touches their genitals to the child's genitals. Explain that sexual abuse can happen with or without clothes on. Tell your child about secret touching. Secret touching happens when an older child or an adult wants to touch or be touched, and asks that the touching be kept secret. Secret touching may feel good or it may feel bad. It may also be confusing, such as when a person whom a child likes touches them in a way they don't understand. Make sure your child understands that it is never okay for someone to ask for secret touching.

9. There is no need to explain the above-mentioned sexual activities in graphic detail. Simply state, "If someone does any of these things, say 'No, I don't want to be touched by you' and come and tell me so we can talk about it." Have your child practice saying "No, I don't want to be touched by you" in a loud voice so they'll feel less self-conscious if they ever really need to use the expression.

10. Saying "no" is not enough – your child also needs to tell. They need to tell even if they've done something wrong. And they need to tell and keep telling until someone believes them. Make sure your child knows whom they can tell.

11. Watch out for gender role stereotypes that may make your child an easy target. Girls don't have to be compliant, boys don't have to be so strong that they won't ask for help.

12. Since an offender may tell the child to "keep the secret," make sure your child understands that secrets can be broken, especially if telling the secret will make them feel better. Explain that secrets can be fun, but only if, like a surprise for someone, they can be shared at some point.

13. Tell your child that it's okay to be rude in order to protect themselves. They also have the right to run, scream, or make a scene in order to get out of a threatening situation. They must learn to assert themselves when dealing with people who have more power, and they must understand that adults are not always right. Since we normally expect children to obey adults, we must give them permission to disobey them, too.

14. Be there and listen to what your child is saying and not saying. Children may not have the words to be specific – "The babysitter is bothering me," may be all you'll hear. Take your child's fears seriously. Explore what they are trying to tell you.

15. Overprotection is unhealthy, too. Children can be isolated within the family and have few trusted adults who will listen and understand their concerns. Continue to let your child play and be on their own, in the yard or with their friends. Don't take away their growing independence.

16. Know the adults and older children who have contact with your child, especially those in positions of authority.

17. Teach your child when it is okay to accept a hug, a compliment, or candy. Tell them to refuse any gesture or gift that must be "kept secret."

18. Play "what if" games. Ask your child, "What would you do if someone offered you money to touch your vulva/penis?" This can be mixed with other safety questions, such as "What would you do if a fire started and you were alone?"

19. Use "teachable moments" to talk about the subject. Things come up in TV shows and movies that can be used to start discussions. Ask your child what they would have done if they'd been in the same situation.

20. Read a book about the subject with your children. Here is one suggestion: It’s My Body: A Book to Teach Young Children How to Resist Uncomfortable Touch by Lory Freeman (Parenting Press, 1984).

21. Provide plenty of nurturing touch that supports your child's positive feelings about themselves. This will also serve to counter the impression that all touch is bad.

22. Take heart – you are giving your child life-long skills that don't only apply to sexual abuse. When you teach your child to trust their feelings, to assert themselves, and to seek out help when they need it, you are also giving them the skills to cope with peer pressure, school work, and job stress.

23. And finally, never lose sight of what you really want to say. We do not want our children to be afraid – we want them to feel in control. We don't want to transmit fear – we want to transmit faith in their judgment.

Compiled by Sexuality Resource Center for Parents.

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Signs of Sexual Abuse

If a child is being sexually abused, they are more likely to indicate something is wrong by their behavior as opposed to being able to say so outright. The following signs may indicate sexual abuse or they may have nothing to do with sexual abuse. You can start by ruling out obvious reasons for the behavior, but after that it is not your responsibility to figure out if your child is being abused – your responsibility is to report your concerns to someone who is trained in making these determinations.

Here are those signs:

  • Drastic changes in personality or behavior; regression to an earlier behavior, such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking
  • "Acting out" behavior; generalized anger or aggression
  • Unusual interest in or knowledge of sexual matters; expressing affection in ways inappropriate for their age
  • Excessive masturbation
  • Sleep disturbances, nightmares, fear of the dark
  • Exaggerated fear of adults or of a particular adult; reluctance to be left somewhere or with someone in particular; aversion to touch or closeness with anyone
  • Any signs of trauma, such as bruises, cuts, redness, or swelling in the genital area; vaginal or rectal bleeding, itching, vaginal infection, or a sexually transmitted infection
  • Indirect hints or questions about a "friend" who has a problem related to sexual abuse
  • Attempts to touch the genitals of other children or adults – this gets complicated because you don't want to confuse abuse with innocent, normal "sex play." When should "sex play" be cause for concern?
    • When one child forces another child into "sex play."
    • When there is a significant age or maturity difference between participants. It's hard to put a number on this, but the difference in age is usually more than one or two years, and it may have more to do with the abused child being less powerful or resourceful than with age difference.
    • When the "sex play" (with another child or a doll or puppet) makes you wonder where the child learned it, when it is very inappropriate, or when it is way beyond their years. If, for example, a child has one doll perform oral sex on another doll, you'll want to find out where the child learned about this. Just remember, though, that the child may be imitating something seen in a movie or on TV, or something seen and reported by another child.
  • You should also be alert to other clues, such as your child having toys, candy, money, or other gifts that can't be explained.

Compiled by Sexuality Resource Center for Parents.

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What to Do When Your Child Tells

Here is a list of things you need to keep in mind if your child tells you that they have been sexually abused:

  • Remain calm – do not express panic or hysteria.
  • Find a private place where it is safe to talk openly.
  • Reassure your child that it's good to tell.
  • Make sure your child knows you believe everything that they say.
  • Use the same words as your child to show you understand and to help them feel more comfortable.
  • Tell your child over and over that it was not their fault and that they are not bad. Even if your child did something wrong (for example, they went alone to a person's house after you told them not to), they must still understand that the abuse was not their fault.
  • Evaluate your child's immediate need for safety.
  • Tell your child what you will do to support and protect them, but avoid promises that it will never happen again.
  • Report the crime to your local child protection/children services agency or police.
  • If you suspect injuries, take your child to an emergency room or contact a doctor.

Effects of sexual abuse depend on the age and personality of the child, the relationship between the child and the offender, what happened, how long it went on, and what the reaction was when the child told someone. We need to recognize the courage that it took to tell because confusion, guilt, shame, and humiliation make telling very hard.

Compiled by Sexuality Resource Center for Parents.

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Choosing Babysitters and Daycare Providers

Parents may have an unspoken fear that a male babysitter may abuse their young child. In reality, boys can be excellent babysitters, and employing a girl does not automatically guarantee a child's safety. It is important to check carefully on anyone, boy or girl, who will be alone with your child. Talk to them before you hire them and talk to other parents who have used them. Don't just remind your child about the rules you expect them to follow while you're away – you must also alert them to possible sitter behaviors that are unacceptable. These behaviors will include being told to do something they don't understand, being threatened, or being promised a special treat if they agree not to reveal a secret. Let the sitter know you always do this. Later, take the trouble to find out how your child and the sitter got along. When a child says they don't like someone, it's important to listen carefully and to find out why.

Because so many cases of abuse in preschools and daycare centers have come to light in recent years, many parents worry about leaving their children in these settings. The vast majority of these schools and centers are perfectly safe, but in recognizing parents' concerns, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has put together a list of steps that parents can take to make sure of this. Here are those steps:

  • Check with state or local licensing agencies, child care information or referral services, and other child care community agencies to make sure the program is reputable. Ask if there have been any complaints about it.
  • Find out as much as possible about the teachers and care givers. Talk with parents whose children have been in the program for some time.
  • Ask how the school or center selects its staff and whether it does a police background check on each staff member. Ask if the school or center checks references and previous employment histories before hiring.
  • Find out whether the school or center welcomes parent participation during the day. Take special note of the attitude toward having parents around.
  • Make sure you have the right to drop in to visit at any time.
  • Make sure you are informed about every planned outing. Never give the organization blanket permission to take your child off the premises. Prohibit, in writing, the release of your child to anyone without your explicit authorization. Make sure the program knows who will pick up your child on any given day.
  • Go visiting unannounced every so often.

Adapted from How to Talk with Your Child about Sexuality: A Parent's Guide, Planned Parenthood Federation of America , 1986.

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© 2021 Sexuality Resource Center for Parents