Information for parents and guardians of children

Talking to Your Child

Talking to Your Child
Sexual abuse is a difficult topic to discuss with others, especially children. Conventional wisdom about what to say to children has changed in recent years and may be counterintuitive.

This section contains the latest information about the preventative discussions to have with your young children and teenagers, as well as what to do if you suspect he or she has been sexually abused.

Talking to Your Child About Sexual Abuse 1

When you empower your children to say “no” to unwanted touch and teach them that they can come to you with questions and concerns, you take critical steps to preventing child sexual abuse.

    Mother talks to girl on a bench.
  • Talk to your children about sexuality and sexual abuse in age-appropriate terms. Talking openly and directly about sexuality teaches children that it is okay to talk to you when they have questions.
  • Teach children the names of their body parts so that they have the language to ask questions and express concerns about those body parts.
  • Teach children that some parts of their bodies are private.
    • Let children know that other people should not be touching or looking at their private parts unless they need to touch them to provide care. If someone does need to touch them in those private areas, a parent or trusted caregiver should be there when it happens.
    • Tell children that if someone tries to touch those private areas or wants to look at them OR if someone tries to show them his or her own private parts, they should tell a trusted adult as soon as possible.
  • Teach your child boundaries and that it’s okay to say “no” to touches that make him or her uncomfortable or scared.
    • Teach your child how to say “no” when he or she is uncomfortable or scared and that he or she should tell a trusted adult as soon as possible.
    • Respect a child’s boundaries in play, teasing, and affection.
    • Assure your child that it is okay to get help, even if someone he or she cares about might be upset or embarrassed.
    • Know that telling a trusted adult can lead to a slightly embarrassing situation for you, your child, and those involved.
      • A child who then says he or she does not want to give a relative a hug or kiss can create tension. Do not force the child to give the relative a hug or a kiss, because it is sending the wrong message to the child and teaches the child to ignore his or her confusing or uncomfortable feelings to the point where he or she does it anyway. Work with your child to find ways to greet people that do not involve uncomfortable kinds of touch.
  • Talk openly about sexuality and sexual abuse to teach your child that these topics do not need to be “secret.” Abusers will sometimes tell a child that the abuse should be kept a secret. Let your child know that if someone is touching him or her or talking to him or her in ways that make him or her uncomfortable or scared, that it should not stay a secret.
    • Abusers rely on the child’s likelihood of not telling an adult.
    • Assure your child that he or she will not get into trouble if he or she tells you this kind of secret.
  • Do not try to put all this information into one big “talk” about sex.
    • Talking about sexuality and sexual abuse should be routine conversations.
    • Use everyday issues to begin conversations to help avoid a big “talk” about sex.

Be involved in your child’s life.

Father teaches boy how to hold a baseball bat correctly.
  • Be engaged in your child’s activities.
    • Ask your child about the people he or she goes to school with or plays with.
    • If your child is involved in sports, go to games and practices. Get to know the other parents and coaches.
    • If your child is involved in after-school activities or day care, ask him or her what he or she did during the day.
  • Know the other adults that your child might talk to.
    • Children sometimes feel that they cannot talk to their parents.
    • Identify and tell your child who the other trusted adults are in his or her life.
  • Talk about the media and technology.
    • If your child watches a lot of television or plays video games, watch or play with him or her.
      • Ask him or her questions about technology you do not understand.
      • Many TV shows show sexual violence of different kinds.
      • Some video games allow the user to engage in sexual violence.
      • Discuss the Internet, the child’s surfing habits, and online safety tips.
    • Use examples from TV or games that you have watched or played together to start up conversations about sexuality and sexual abuse.

Be available.

  • Make time to spend with your child.
  • Let your child know that he or she can come to you if he or she has questions or if someone is talking to him or her in a way that makes him or her feel uncomfortable or scared.
    • Make time to talk to your child when he or she comes to you with concerns or questions.

Discussing Sexual Abuse With Teens

The discussion about sexuality and sexual abuse should start way before a child begins puberty. The following tips are provided with the understanding that preventative discussions have occurred with your child years earlier. If you have not discussed sexual abuse with your child, start today.

Woman sitting with a laptop looking at while on the phone.

When it comes to sexual abuse, protecting teens is complicated. Teenagers seek relationships outside the family for friendship, security, and even advice. In addition, they may be confused or embarrassed about their own developing sexuality, which makes communication difficult and protecting them nearly impossible. 2

Be realistic and educate yourself.

  • Know that most abusers are known by the victim.
  • Realize teens are learning about sex. Often their sources may not be the best places to get the facts on sex. Sources include their friends, pornography, or firsthand experiences.
  • Learn more so you can help and inform your child.
    • If your teen comes to you with a question and you respond by giving him or her a pamphlet of information, he or she may think you are not open to further conversation.
    • Educational pamphlets can be helpful, many times for you as a parent. Creating open communication is a better way for teens to learn about sexuality and sexual abuse.

Do not put off discussions.

Father talks to teen son while sitting on a window bench.
  • Before communication lines shut down or something happens, talk to your child.
  • Open the lines of communication and talk to your child about his or her personal rights and personal boundaries in an age-appropriate manner.

Help teens define their personal rights.

  • Believe it or not, many teens who get caught up in an inappropriate relationship with an adult (or even someone their own age who is an abuser) blame themselves. They do not know what their personal rights are or what kind of behavior to expect from adults. Teach your children that it is okay to say no and that they do not have to do anything they do not want to do. Often, kids think they are supposed to respect their elders and be nice, so they go along with things that make them uncomfortable because they feel obligated.
  • Teens should understand that:
    • Their bodies are theirs.
    • Past permission does not obligate them to future activity.
    • They do not have to do anything they do not want to do.
    • They should trust their instincts.
    • It is not okay for them to engage in sexual behavior with adults.
    • It is not okay for adults to take pictures or videos of them in sexual positions or unclothed.
    • Regardless of how they dress or talk, it does not constitute permission.
    • Pornography is not an accurate depiction of real life.
    • They deserve to be spoken to with respect and never feel coerced.
    • Alcohol and drugs may make it hard for them to maintain their boundaries and can cloud their judgment.
    • Touching someone sexually while they are drunk is abuse.
    • Adults should not discuss their sexual fantasies or share pornography with minors.
    • No one has the right to touch them without their permission.
  • If they are in a relationship, they should also understand that:
    • Both parties respect each other’s personal rights and boundaries in a healthy relationship.
    • They should decline sexual relations with anyone who refuses to use proper protection.
    • Not everyone is having sex. Many teens wait and that is perfectly okay.

Help them build up their self-esteem.

Often, low self-esteem is a pivotal factor in risky teen behavior. Teens who do not feel good about themselves or who are at odds with their family may turn to other adults for support. This type of behavior is extremely dangerous; this is exactly what abusers are looking for. They approach teens and take advantage of their low self-esteem, give gifts like liquor or drugs, further isolate them from the family, and attempt to become their ”friend.” In addition, teens that do not have money are also often a target and may be bribed with gifts or money.

Teen girl paints on a canvas.
  • Encourage your teen to get involved in a hobby, sport, work, or art.
  • Teach your teen how to earn money legitimately without having to give up his or her pride or self-worth.
  • Teach your teen how to take care of himself or herself.
  • Empower your teen to be in control of his or her own life rather than feeling like a victim.
  • Give your teen responsibility.
  • Communicate how much you value his or her independence, accomplishments, and ability to be responsible, while letting him or her know you are supportive and available.

Need help? Get help.

Upset woman sitting on a bed with her fingers on the keys of a cell phone.
  • Know that it is never too late to seek help.
  • Talk to school administrators, counselors, teachers, and community outreach program representatives for assistance.
  • Affirm to yourself that abuse is something that needs to be stopped, not ignored.
  • Report abuse as soon as possible. Silence protects the abuser and shows the child that abuse is acceptable and may convey that it is his or her fault.
  • Do not blame the child for the abuse.
  • Seek counseling for abused children to help alleviate confusion, anger, and possible self-esteem issues.
  • Seek counseling for you to learn how to get through the hurt and anger, and find ways to help your child and family connections heal.

Talking to Your Child if You Suspect That He or She Is Being Sexually Abused 3

Parents are surrounded by messages about child sexual abuse. Talk shows and TV news warn parents about dangers on the Internet, at school, and at home. However, parents do not get much advice on how to talk to their children if they are concerned that sexual abuse is occurring.

Talk to your child directly.

  • Pick your time and place carefully!
    • Have this conversation somewhere that your child feels comfortable.
    • DO NOT ask your child about child abuse in front of the person you think may be abusing the child!

Ask if anyone has been touching your child in ways that do not feel okay or that make him or her feel uncomfortable.

Mother listens to daughter tell a secret in her ear
  • Know that sexual abuse can feel good to the victim, so asking your child if someone is hurting him or her may not get the information that you are looking for.
  • Follow up on whatever made you concerned. If there was something your child said or did that made you concerned, ask about that.
  • Ask in a nonjudgmental way, and take care to avoid shaming your child as you ask questions.
    • “I” questions can be very helpful. Rather than beginning your conversation by saying, “You (the child) did something/said something that made me worry…,” consider starting your inquiry with the word “I.” For example: “I am concerned because I heard you say that you are not allowed to close the bathroom door.”
    • Make sure that your child knows that he or she is not in trouble, and that you are simply trying to gather more information.
  • Talk with your child about secrets.
    • Sometimes abusers will tell children that sexual abuse is a secret just between them. They may ask the child to promise to keep it secret.
    • When you talk to your child, talk about times that it is okay not to keep a secret, even if he or she made a promise.

Build a trusting relationship with your child.

  • Let your child know that it is okay to come to you if someone is making him or her uncomfortable.
    • Be sure to follow up on any promises you make—if you tell your child that he or she can talk to you, be sure to make time for him or her when he or she does come to you!
  • All children should know that it’s okay to say “no” to touches that make them uncomfortable or if someone is touching them in ways that make them uncomfortable and that they should tell a trusted adult as soon as possible.
    • Let your child know that you will not get angry at him or her if he or she tells someone “no.” Children are often afraid that they will get into trouble if they tell someone not to touch them.

Teach your child that some parts of his or her body are private.

  • Tell your child that if someone tries to touch those private areas or wants to look at them OR if someone tries to show the child his or her own private parts, your child should tell a trusted adult as soon as possible.
  • Let your child know that he or she will not be in trouble if he or she tells you about inappropriate touching.
  • Make sure to follow through on this if your child does tell you about inappropriate touching! Try not to react with anger towards the child.

If you have reason to be concerned about sexual abuse, there may be other signs of sexual abuse as well. This Website provides a list of warning sign for parents. Additionally, RAINN’s Web site provides a comprehensive list of signs that indicate child sexual abuse. As you talk to your child about sexual abuse, remember to focus on creating a safe place for your child. Even if he or she does not tell you about sexual abuse at the time of the conversation, you are laying a foundation for future conversations.

RReferencesback to top

  1. Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, “How Can I Protect My Child From Sexual Assault?” ( (November 1, 2012)
  2. Stevens, Pamela S. Top Ten Reviews, “Protecting Teens From Sexual Abuse.” ( (December 21, 2011)
  3. Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, “Talking to Your Child if You Suspect That They Are Being Sexually Abused.” ( (November 1, 2012)