Talking with teenagers about child sexual abuse: getting started
Talking about child sexual abuse with your child or the child you’re caring for helps to keep them safe. That’s because talking helps your child understand what sexual abuse is. Also, open and honest conversations about sexual topics 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 romantic relationships, respect, consent and internet safety.
For example, you could:
- Talk about good things that happen in trusting relationships, like feeling loved and supported. But you might also talk about how relationships can sometimes make people feel uncomfortable, unsafe, disrespected or bullied – and this isn’t OK.
- Talk about social media and how it lets you connect with people who share your interests – but these might be people you don’t know.
- Use a news report, TV show or talk at your child’s school to start a conversation.
- Use everyday opportunities to talk with your child about sexual abuse – for example, during dinner or when you’re driving your child to an after-school activity.
You don’t have to talk about all aspects of sexual abuse at once. You can come back to conversations later.
All children have the right to be safe from abuse. Talking about sexual abuse is part of creating safe environments that help young people grow and thrive.
Teenagers have the right to say what happens to their bodies. When your child understands this, they can also understand that it’s wrong for other people to touch, ask to see or take photos of their body, or do anything sexual with them, without consent.
Giving and getting consent is essential to healthy and enjoyable sexual experiences for your child. Understanding and exercising consent can also help to keep your child safe from sexual abuse.
You can explain to your child that most people do the right thing. But there might be situations where someone your child trusts – like an adult friend, a family member or another young person – tries to touch them in a sexual way without consent. Or there might be situations where your child feels they can’t say no to something sexual, or they’re frightened and can’t leave the situation.
If this happens, it’s important for your child to know that it isn’t their fault. And it’s essential for your child to tell you or another trusted adult what has happened. This is essential even if your child has been told to keep it a secret or has been threatened, bribed, blackmailed or tricked.
Let your child know that you’ll listen non-judgmentally, believe them and support them.
When teenagers know what healthy and respectful relationships look like, they might be able to avoid relationships that put them at risk of sexual abuse.
One way to help teenagers understand respect is by talking about examples that you come across on TV or streaming services or at the movies. Or your child might see and talk about their friends’ relationships as examples.
It’s also important to talk about knowing when a relationship is becoming disrespectful or unsafe and what your child can do. For example, ‘It’s wrong for someone to force you to kiss them, try to get you to do something sexual, or try to be around you when you don’t want them to be. You don’t have to do anything that you don’t want to do, even if you’re going out with someone’.
Safe and unsafe places and situations
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.
Here’s how you could describe the difference:
- Safe places: ‘A safe place has supervision by a responsible adult. In a safe place, there are also familiar people who could help you if you need them.’
- Unsafe places: ‘An unsafe place is where you can’t see other people around who could help you.’
It’s also a good idea to talk with your child about what to do in unsafe situations. For example:
- ‘What would you do if I wasn’t at training to collect you and someone you’ve only just met offers you a lift home?’
- ‘What would you do if you felt uncomfortable at a sleepover?’
- ‘What would you do if an adult tried to touch you?’
It’s also a good idea to talk about what unsafe online situations look like and how grooming happens online. For example:
- ‘How can you tell that someone on the internet is who they say they are?’
- ‘Why might strangers start talking to teenagers on the internet?’
- ‘What would you do if someone asked you to meet up with them or send them naked pictures?’
You might need to remind your child about physical warning signs that a place or situation isn’t safe. For example, your child’s heart might start beating faster and they might feel sweaty or shaky. Or your child might just get a ‘gut feeling’ that things aren’t safe. If your child’s body sends these signs, it’s important for your child to trust the signs and get away from the place or situation.
Knowing who to trust and tell
If there are several trusted people in your child’s life, your child will have someone to talk to about worries and concerns, including sexual abuse. You could work with your child to draw up a list of these people.
If someone on your child’s list doesn’t believe your child, your child needs to keep telling trusted adults until someone listens and helps.