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Talking to Children About Physical or Sexual Abuse


Child abuse is unfortunately not a rare occurrence.  Public health authorities estimate that about 81,000 children are victims of sexual abuse and 160,000 are victims of physical abuse every year.  About 1 in 100 children will be victims of sexual abuse during childhood (CDC fact sheet). Child abuse is a topic that should be discussed in every household.  Families should teach children about safety and privacy and how to keep the lines of communication with trusted adults open.

There are no helpful stereotypes of who might be a perpetrator, and so it is important to help your children build the skills and self-esteem that will help them avoid unsafe situations and ask for help if something is happening.  Federal statistics show that perpetrators of sexual abuse are most commonly friends or neighbors (57.7%), followed by other relatives (32.0%) and child daycare providers (23.9%). (U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources)

Talk to your kids

Always start discussions with your child at a general level.  Keep in mind some facts about your child’s cognitive and emotional development.  Children aged 5-12:

  • are quite suggestible
  • take their cues from their parents about how to react
  • are still developing abstract reasoning
  • tend to see things in black and white
  • tend to be quite rule-bound and rule-oriented.

Start by setting up a general frame work for discussion.  For example:

  • “It’s time to have a talk about good touch and bad touch because camp is coming up”, or “because it is swimsuit season and kids will be wearing less clothing, we should talk about this”, or “because I read an article in the paper, I want to have a talk with you about this”
  • “It’s important that we talk about this every once in a while, because it’s a way that I make sure you’re safe and I can teach you ways to stay safe.”
  • “Only your parents and your doctor are ever supposed to touch your private parts.” Good touch – appropriate hugs, kisses, pats.  Bad touch – private parts, anything that makes you uncomfortable that doesn’t stop.   This is a good opportunity to talk with your kids about body boundaries and respect, in general.

Ask open ended questions: “Has anyone at school or camp or church ever touched you in a bad way, or made you do anything you didn’t like?”  “Tell me about that”

Be calm and emphasize your acceptance: “You can always tell me if something like that happens. I won’t be mad at you.”

Emphasize safety: “Who are other people you can tell who can keep you safe?” “If someone makes you feel uncomfortable, you can always tell me, or a teacher, and we will protect you”.
Reassure your child that if someone touches him inappropriately, it is never his fault; he is not to blame. Say you appreciate being told.

Since children at this age can incorporate hints or possibilities into their beliefs about a specific situation, it is important not to encourage your child to embroider. For example:

Avoid:  suggesting that something happened. e.g. “He did that, didn’t he?” 

Avoid: asking questions over and over again – it will communicate to your child that something is wrong, when nothing may have happened.

Avoid: putting words in their mouths or suggesting who, when or where something might have happened

Be patient: This will be challenging if you are worried about your child.  You may ask about a situation in a routine way, and she may not answer you right away.  Be attentive for an answer some time after you ask about it.

How will elementary school-aged children react to specific questioning about sexual behavior? They :

  • will have trouble understanding the idea of “alleged” behavior.  In their minds, people are either rule breakers or rule followers, good or bad.   
  • will tend to interpret anxiety in parents as an indicator that something bad did happen, not that something “might have happened” or that you want to provide information “in case”.
  • will try to “read you” and tell you what they think you want to hear.

If you have specific concerns that something may have happened to your child, there may be signs of stress related to such an event. 

Even if a child won’t talk about what occurred, you may notice symptoms that are worth further evaluation, such as:

  • Repetitive, sexualized play, with other kids or with dolls or in pretend
  • A change in interest in play from usual patterns
  • Seeming more cut off or withdrawn from peers or adults
  • Seeming more emotionally numb
  • Nightmares that are recurrent
  • Increased irritability, jumpiness, wariness, and being easily startled
  • Increased anxiety and worry, particularly in response to people or places that may be associated with the traumatic exposure
  • Efforts to avoid specific places, people or events that are not explicable
  • Changes in personality that seem linked in time to a potential event

If your child learns of specific details of an incident affecting another child, or asks specifically about a person in question:

  • Give matter of fact answers about what you know for certain, and be honest about what you don’t know.
  • Let your child tell you what she knows, what she wonders about, and what her concerns or worries are.
  • Remind your child of all the ways in which people work to keep him safe – parents, teachers, police officers, administrators. Remind him that he can always tell you or another trusted adult.
  • Remain calm and neutral.  It will not help your child to tell you something if he thinks you will become angry or frightened or sad.
  • Don’t tell you child what will happen, only that you think it would be a good idea to talk about what happened with someone else also.
  • Do show real concern, but not alarm or anger.
  • Call your child’s school.
  • Contact the New York District Attorney’s Office Child Abuse Hotline at 212 335 4308 or your local authority

Overall, the hardest job may be reassuring yourself that your child is fine and that nothing has happened.  This uneasiness may even occur when all the evidence indicates that nothing happened to your child and that she or he is fine.  Try to develop a clear sense of what signs or symptoms would indicate problems, and a clear sense of what standards of “normal” you have for your child, and for any elementary school-aged child. If problems persist, consultation with a mental health professional can be helpful.


Date Published: May 26, 2009