Talking to Children About Sexual Abuse

Lynn Rosenthal

Media coverage of prominent figures in our community involved in sexual abuse cases can be difficult to hear and understand. It is especially shocking when it is a person you know. In about 90 percent of sexual abuse cases, the victim knows their abuser and it is someone the family trusts. 

How do we approach this conversation with children and explain that one of their heroes or another important person may have taken part in a horrific act? As always, how you talk to children about challenging issues depends on their age.  

Talking With Younger Kids 

Protect children by role modeling and teaching them about healthy adult-child boundaries from a very young age. The first step is to make sure you are comfortable talking with your child about their bodies and sexuality. 

Teach your child to use language regarding their private parts that other adults will easily understand. A great reference is “My Body Belongs to Me” from the Channing Bete Co. This booklet includes scenarios about behaviors such as tickling or touching that can make kids uncomfortable, and helps children better define personal boundaries. 

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Next, help your child identify safe adults. Ask who they feel comfortable talking to if they are worried about themselves or someone else. A helpful and fun tool isLauren’s Kids Trusted Triangleworksheet, which helps children name three “grown-up buddies” who make them feel safe.

Your child may overhear things and ask about events in the news, especially if it’s a local figure. Let your child lead, making sure you have responded to their primary concerns. Keep your tone light so they feel safe about bringing up this topic.

Cover the basics, without graphic details, and explain that this type of behavior is bad and never the fault of an abused child. Ask them, “What would you do if someone made you feel uncomfortable or asked you to keep a secret from me?” You want them to know that if anyone ever touches them, tries to touch them or asks them to keep secrets that they can come to you or their “grown-up buddies.” Remind them they won’t be in trouble for telling.

The goal of these talks isn’t to make children feel fearful or distrusting of adults; it is simply one way to role model calm and open communication, to provide ideas on what to do if a situation doesn’t feel safe to the child, and to reinforce what a healthy and safe adult-child relationship looks like. 

Talking With Teens

Thanks to social media, teens are likely to hear the latest news before their parents. If they approach you with something they have heard or seen in the media, acknowledge thatall types of people, including public figures, professional athletes, politicians and mentors can do very hurtful things. And that these things are never the fault of the victim. 

Teens appreciate open communication and transparency, but let them guide the conversation. Encouraging your teen to talk about their reactions provides an opportunity for you to debunk myths, acknowledge their feelings and problem solve about safety. 

Reiterate that you hope your teen will come to you or another trusted adult anytime they feel unsafe or if something horrible has happened to them, no matter who was involved. Encourage discussion regarding their worries about talking to others about their experiences, and reassure them that you will be there for them no matter what. 

Teens are loyal to their peers. Encourage them not to keep secrets about their friends, because doing so may leave that friend in harm’s way and prevent them from getting help they may need. 

Give them specific tools. There is strength in numbers, so recommend your teen identify a buddy to keep in touch with while out at an event or sleeping over with a group of friends. When your child is going out, ask who their buddy will be. 

Finally, talk with your teen about using a safe word. This is a word or phrase they can say or text if they feel unsafe and need you to pick them up immediately. 

Additional resources on this topic are available through theDarkness to Light website. Be sure to check out the Parents section, where you’ll find prevention tools, statistics, tips on talking with kids and more. 

For more information about Central Ohio services related to child sexual abuse or family violence, go toThe Center for Family Safety and Healing

Lynn Rosenthal is president of The Center for Family Safety and Healing, a Columbus-based nonprofit organization that work to end family violence.