We Have to Talk With Our Kids About Sexual Abuse. Here’s What to Say

Amanda Collins Bernier
Baystateparent Magazine
Simple conversations can be effective prevention tools for families because they give parents and caregivers opportunities to inform children about their bodies, set safety rules, and build trust.

Have you talked to your kids about sexual abuse? 

It can feel like an awkward and scary topic to broach with children, but experts say it’s important to discuss in a frank and open way. Just like you talk to kids about why they need to wash their hands or wear a bike helmet, you should approach the topic from a personal safety perspective. 

The truth is, child sexual abuse happens – probably more than you think. Statistics say that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 20 boys are sexually abused before they’re adults, and in 90% of cases, sexually abused children know their abuser. But in reality, the numbers could be even higher because so much of it is not discussed or reported.

The Committee for Children hopes to change that with their Hot Chocolate Talk campaign, a public awareness effort that launches April 1 for Child Abuse Prevention Month. It provides simple, research-based conversation starters to help you weave these critical safety conversations into everyday interactions you have with your children such as during bedtime, reading time, and at meals.

Where do you start? What should you say? We talked with Dr. Tia Kim, a researcher, mom of two boys and Vice President of Education, Research & Impact at Committee for Children to get some advice. 

Why is something as simple as a conversation so powerful when it comes to protecting children from sexual abuse?

The data around child sexual abuse can be really scary for parents, but research shows that children who are informed about their bodies and who feel comfortable talking openly with a trusted adult are less likely to be abused and more likely to disclose abuse if it happens. Simple conversations can be such powerful and effective prevention tools for families because they give parents and caregivers opportunities to inform children about their bodies, set safety rules, and build trust. 

How can we normalize this safety talk for parents who feel uncomfortable?

I know having this kind of discussion with children can feel uncomfortable for some parents, but it doesn’t have to. The easiest way to normalize having safety conversations with your kids is to have them early in children’s lives and often as children grow. The Committee for Children created the free Hot Chocolate Talk how-to guides, so parents and caregivers don’t have to worry about what to say or when to say it. Available for free at hotchocolatetalk.org, the guides provide families with the precise age-appropriate words they can use to start these important safety conversations with children and continue the conversations as children grow up. In my experience, the more often parents have these talks with their kids, the more comfortable the conversation becomes.

It’s suggested that this conversation begins early, but this seems like a scary topic for a toddler. How do we talk to young children about unsafe touching in a natural, approachable way?

Many parents are surprised to hear that the best time to start having these conversations is when your child begins naming their own body parts. When talking with children ages 0-5, I recommend keeping the conversations simple and focus on a couple things to help lay a foundation for future conversations.

Teach toddlers the anatomically correct names for their body parts. This is important because if they are harmed, children can accurately describe what happened. A great time to do this is during bath time with young kids.

I also recommend parents teach children to refuse unsafe touching. Let your child know that it’s okay to refuse touches, even if it’s a hug from a relative or an activity that seems fun, like tickling. Practice assertiveness together. Model standing up tall and refusing uncomfortable situations with a calm voice. For example, parents can tell children things like “If something makes you uncomfortable, you can say: ‘Stop. I don’t like that.’” 

How should the conversation change as children get older?

As children get older and begin spending more time away from their parents, it’s important that they know safety rules to help keep them safe from harm. For example, parents can tell children ages 6-8 things like “Bathing suits cover the parts of the body that are meant to be private, which means they are not for others to see or touch.”

I also recommend parents create a family safety plan, so children know safe, trusted adults to contact if they have a safety concern. Families can also try role-playing or asking “What if” questions to give children a chance to practice skills such as how to refuse unwanted touch.

As children approach adolescence, they often have questions about what’s normal and are beginning to have more unsupervised time online, so they need to know how to stay safe from abuse in person and online. When children reach ages 9-10, this is a great time to review family safety rules, go into more detail about privacy, and reinforce the lesson that keeping secrets is not okay. Families can tell children things like “No one should take or ask for photos of your private body parts or show you photos of other people’s private parts, in person or online” or “If anyone ever makes you feel uncomfortable, you can tell me. I will believe you and keep you safe.”

What’s the right time to bring up the topic of consent to a teenager?

It's important to start having these types of conversations young, so as your child grows older, they will see you as a safe and trusted source to come to talk about any difficult or tough topic. Tweens and teens often find it easier to talk when they’re not looking directly at someone, so the best time to connect may be while riding in a car or cooking a meal together. Personal safety rules might also need to be framed in a way that’s less directive than what you would teach a younger child. 

I encourage parents of tweens and teens to be adaptive and available. If you talk to your tween or teen openly and often, you can be their trusted source of information and better prepare them for relationships and risks. Many parents find opportunities to talk about consent in everyday conversations about their tween or teen’s social life. For example, parents can say, “I know you have strong feelings for your girlfriend, so even though it may seem awkward, we need to talk about safety and consent.”

We often think of sexual abuse as a physical violation. What should parents make sure their kids know when it comes to being online?

Just as families have safety rules for in-person interactions, they should also teach children clear safety rules for interactions online. For example, in my house, my sons are only allowed to play video games with people they know in real life. That’s a rule that helps my family, but it may be different for others. I recommend families teach children that it’s not safe for someone to ask for their personal information, and it’s not safe to send or receive pictures of private body parts. Reinforce the lesson that it’s okay for children to say no to and refuse behavior online that makes them uncomfortable. And ensure that if your child does have an unsafe interaction online, they know to tell you or another trusted adult you’ve identified in your family safety plan.

What are examples of some simple personal safety rules parents can lay out for their kids? 

Each family will have its own approach to setting safety rules, but we encourage families to incorporate the three Rs into their family rules:

1. Teach children to RECOGNIZE unsafe behavior and situations. For example, “Pay attention to different feelings in your body, like butterflies in your tummy. That might mean a situation is not okay.”

2. Teach children to REFUSE unsafe behavior and situations. For example, “It’s always okay to say ‘No,’ even if you’ve already said ‘Yes.’ Your feelings and safety come first.”

3. Teach children to REPORT unsafe behavior and situations. For example, “Never keep secrets about touching. If anyone ever makes you feel uncomfortable, you can tell me. I will believe you and keep you safe.”

The 3 Rs provides a framework that really helps parents set specific safety rules that will work best for their families.

What should you do if a child discloses abuse to you?

If your child discloses abuse, here’s what you should do and say right away:

· Stay calm, even if it’s difficult. Ask your child to tell you more about what happened.

· Tell your child that you believe them and it’s not their fault. Research shows that children rarely lie about experiencing abuse.

· Tell your child you’ll get some help and keep them safe.

Some resources where families can get help include:

· Childhelp www.childhelp.org | 800-422-4453

· Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network www.rainn.org | 800-656-4673

· National Sexual Violence Resource Center www.nsvrc.org | 877-739-3895

· National Human Trafficking Hotline 888-373-7888 | or text HELP to 233733 

For more information on how families should respond if kids disclose abuse, and for age-by-age guides to having these conversations, visit hotchocolatetalk.org.