Parents often find it difficult to talk about sexual abuse, especially with the very children they are trying to protect.
But keeping children safe demands that parents be proactive. Sexual abuse is more common than most people think. More than 60,000 children nationwide become victims each year. In the U.S. a child is abused every 98 seconds, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest Network, a nationwide anti-sexual violence organization.
“It’s classmates, it’s kids on their baseball team, and it’s happening to people in our community,” says Rebecca Hook, MD, who specializes in pediatric emergency medicine at Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital.
The good news is parents can help protect children without having to have uncomfortable or explicit conversations, Dr. Hook says.
The concept is called “safe touch.” It’s an age-appropriate way to teach children about their bodies as well as the difference between safe touching and unwanted, unhealthy or harmful touching. “The most important thing parents can do is to start talking to children early about their bodies in general,” Dr. Hook says.
Safe touches are touches that keep children safe, are good for them, and make them feel cared for. They include brief hugs, handshakes or pats on the back. Unsafe touches are touches that hurt children’s bodies or feelings.
For example, hitting, pushing, pinching or kicking. Teach children that these kinds of touches are not okay.
A third kind of touch is unwanted touches. These are touches that might be safe, but that a child doesn’t want from that person, or at that moment. It is okay for a child to say “no” to an unwanted touch, even if it is from a familiar person. Help your children practice saying “no” in a strong, yet polite voice. This will help children learn to set personal boundaries.
1. Parents and caregivers should get into a daily routine where they ask children open-ended questions about their day.
Open-ended questions are those that don’t have a “yes” or “no” answer, instead encouraging children to discuss details. For example, instead of asking, “Did you have a good day today?” ask “Whom did you eat lunch with today?”
“Even a 2 year old can tell you something about their day,” Dr. Hook says. Asking such questions encourages more meaningful conversations about routine daily achievements, and they also give children the confidence and facility to confide in you about situations or people who might hurt them.
2. As you teach children the names of their body parts, be precise about private parts.
Just about every family has its own nicknames for private parts, Dr. Hook says. For very young children this is okay, but parents should agree on one term for each body part to avoid misunderstandings. That way, if a child is ever touched inappropriately by someone, they’ll be able to communicate that to their parent or caregiver.
For young children, you can describe any body parts concealed by their swimsuit as private parts. As they get older you can teach them more precise body part names.
“Whatever the anatomical name, stick to the scientific terms if possible,” Dr. Hook says. “Whatever it is, it should be consistent. We don’t want 10 different names for a body part.”
In addition, there are age-appropriate videos available on YouTube that you can watch with your child that will help them understand to recognize unwanted touching and how to tell you if it happens. Talk with your pediatrician about which resources they think are most appropriate for your child.
3. Model safe touch for your children so they can tell someone to stop touching them if it makes them feel uncomfortable.
Children should be taught that their body belongs to them and that they shouldn’t allow someone else to touch them in ways they don’t like. The best way for them to learn this is to model for them what it looks like to protect your body.
For example, if you’re horse playing with your child and they jump on you in a way you don’t like, tell them in clear, calm language that you don’t like how it feels and that you want them to stop. In the majority of cases of sexual abuse, the perpetrator is someone the child knows and trusts, so it’s important that children have boundaries in which they feel safe and that they don’t allow anyone to cross.
4. Realize that any child can be targeted by a sexual predator, most often by someone they know.
About one in seven cases of sexual abuse is committed by adolescents, Dr. Hook says. “It happens across all races and socioeconomic statuses.” Avoid situations where your children are alone with adolescents or adults for extended periods of time, especially if you don’t know them well.
5. When sexual abuse cases appear in the news, use them as teaching moments rather than avoiding answering questions or discussing it with your child.
“These incidents can provide you with a good gauge of what your child knows and understands,” Dr. Hook says. “If they do know something and have questions, you can ask them, ‘What would you do in that situation?’”
6. Any time a child reports what sounds like sexual abuse to you, believe them and follow up.
“They’ve looked at cases; only a small number, about 4 to 8 percent, are fabricated in any way,” Dr. Hook says. “The majority of the time, it happened.”