Talking with children about child sexual abuse: getting started
But talking about sexual abuse with your child or the child you’re caring for helps to keep your child safe.
That’s because talking helps your child understand what sexual abuse is and gives your child language to talk about this issue too. Also, open and honest conversations send the message that your child can always talk to you and that you’ll listen no matter what.
If you’re not sure how to start, you can talk about sexual abuse as part of conversations about relationships, respect and personal development. For example, you could talk about good things that happen in trusting relationships, like feeling loved and sharing good times. But you might also say that sometimes relationships can make people feel uncomfortable, unsafe or bullied – and this isn’t OK.
Books are also a great way to start conversations about child sexual abuse. You could try these suggestions:
- Everyone’s got a bottom by Tess Rowley
- Some secrets should never be kept by Jayneen Sanders and Craig Smith
- Let’s talk about body boundaries, consent & respect by Jayneen Sanders and Sarah Jennings
- Someone should have told me by Holly-ann Martin and Marilyn Fahie
- My underpants rule! by Kate and Rod Power
You don’t have to talk about all aspects of child sexual abuse at once. You can return to conversations later.
All children have the right to grow up safe from abuse. Talking with children about sexual abuse is part of creating safe environments that help children grow and thrive.
Listening to children’s concerns
Sometimes when you’re talking, your child might tell you things or share concerns. There are a couple of steps to take when this happens:
- Reflect back what your child has said to check you understand – for example, ‘You don’t like it when Mrs R gives you a wet sloppy kiss’ or ‘You think Mr B is acting weird’.
- Respond by talking with your child about what to do if it happens again. For example, ‘It’s OK to say no or move away when Mrs R tries to give you a kiss. Telling me about it is the right thing to do, and telling is important’.
Saying ‘no’: helping children stand up for themselves
Saying no to unwanted touch or activity is an important part of staying safe from sexual abuse for your child or the child you’re caring for.
If your child doesn’t want to be tickled, kissed or hugged by an adult or older child, it’s OK for your child to say no and move away. It’s OK even if the person has been nice to your child.
It’s OK for your child to say ‘No!’ if someone:
- touches your child
- asks your child to do something that feels unsafe, scary or confusing
- does something that makes your child want to get away
- is threatening, bribing or blackmailing your child
- has tricked your child into an unsafe situation.
It’s also important for your child to accept it when other people say no to them.
It can help to practise these situations. For example, you could get your child to practise standing up tall and saying loudly, ‘Stop it!’, ‘No, I don’t like that!’ or ‘Stop! It’s my body, and I say what goes!’
Feeling unsafe: helping children recognise physical warning signs
Children’s bodies give them warning signs when something is wrong or they don’t feel safe. These signs can happen in many unsafe situations. If your child can recognise the signs in any unsafe situation, your child should be able to recognise the signs in a sexually unsafe situation too.
You can protect your child or the child you’re caring for from sexual abuse by helping your child recognise and use words for these warning signs.
For example, for younger children, you might say, ‘When you feel unsafe you might feel funny in the tummy, your heart might beat fast, or your body might feel hot, shaky or wobbly’.
For older children, you might say, ‘When you feel unsafe your heart might pound, your muscles might feel tense or tight, your hands might be sweaty, you might get goosebumps or feel hot, or you might feel like you’re going to be sick’.
Feeling unsafe: what to do
It’s OK and important for children to act on these warning signs. For example, you could say, ‘If you’re with someone and have these feelings, it’s OK to go somewhere else and be with someone else so you feel safe. It’s also important to tell me about how you felt, so I can help you stay safe’.
It’s good to talk with your child about who to go to when they feel unsafe. Together you can identify trusted family and friends or police and teachers. Remind your child that if someone doesn’t believe them, it’s important to keep telling people until someone listens and helps them feel safe.
Inappropriate touch: helping children protect their own bodies
Your child or the child you’re caring for needs to know that their body is their own. When your child understands this, they can also understand that it’s wrong for other people to touch their body, ask to see their body, or take photos or videos of their body, particularly their genitals.
For younger children, you might say, ‘Your body belongs to you. No-one can touch or see your body without a good reason. If a grown up or older child wants to touch or see your vagina (or penis) or show you theirs, that’s not OK. Even if it’s someone you know, it’s still not OK. You should tell me straight away, even if they ask you to keep it a secret’.
For older children, you might say, ‘Your body belongs to you. No-one can touch or ask to see your vagina (or penis) or anus without a good reason. If someone wants to see or touch your vagina (or penis) or show you theirs, it’s important that you tell someone straight away. You should tell someone even if it’s a person you know and like, and even if they ask you to keep it a secret’.
Let your child know about ‘good reasons’. For example, ‘A doctor or nurse might ask to see your body. That’s a good reason, but only if I’m there too’.
It’s a good idea to use proper names for body parts like vulva, vagina, clitoris, nipples, penis, scrotum and testicles. This means that your child will have language to communicate clearly about their body.
Safe and unsafe secrets: helping children understand the difference
People who sexually abuse children need the abuse to be a secret. You can help your child or the child you’re caring for stay safe by helping them understand the difference between safe and unsafe secrets.
For younger children, here’s how you could explain the difference:
- Safe secrets: ‘Some secrets are good to keep, like when Nanna tells you what she’s buying your sister for her birthday. These are safe secrets’.
- Unsafe secrets: ‘Some secrets might make you feel worried, like if a friend tells you that he’s going to take something that doesn’t belong to him. These are unsafe secrets. If a secret might make people unhappy, you need to tell me so we can decide whether it’s a safe secret or an unsafe secret’.
For older children, here’s how you could explain the difference:
- Safe secrets: ‘Safe secrets are ones that we only have to keep for a short time. They usually make people happy, and everyone knows about the secret in the end. A safe secret might be a surprise birthday party’.
- Unsafe secrets: ‘Unsafe secrets might make you feel worried. The person telling you might ask you to keep it a secret from everyone, including me. You need to tell me about these secrets or tell someone else you trust’.
Safe and unsafe places and situations: helping children recognise them
It’s a good idea to talk with your child or the child you’re caring for about what makes places and situations safe or less safe.
Younger children can’t always recognise safe and unsafe places, so it’s best to talk about how different places make them feel. You could ask your child, ‘Where do you feel happy and know that you will be safe? What does it look like? Who is there? Why does it make you feel safe?’
For older children, you can explain the difference:
- Safe places: ‘A safe place is where there are lots of people around and you know people’.
- Unsafe places: ‘An unsafe place is where you can’t see other people around who could help you’.
It can also help to talk with your child about what to do in unsafe situations. For example:
- ‘What would you do if I wasn’t at school at pick-up time?’
- ‘What would you do if someone you didn’t know wanted you to help them look for their dog?’
- ‘What would you do if you felt uncomfortable in a public toilet?’
- ‘What would you do if someone touched your body in a way that you didn’t think was OK?’