Talking with children about child sexual abuse: why it’s important
Talking about child 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.
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.
Getting started on conversations about child sexual abuse
If you’re not sure how to start, you can talk about sexual abuse as part of conversations about respectful relationships and consent. 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.
For older children, you could find out how your child’s school teaches topics like child protection and personal safety. Then you could use this as a starting point and follow up on the information at home.
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
- My body belongs to me by Jill Starishevsky and Angela Padron
- 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
- No difference between us by Jayneen Sanders
- Milly’s Message by Liz Walker.
You don’t have to talk about all aspects of child sexual abuse at once. You can come back to conversations later.
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:
- Repeat what your child has said to check you understand. For example, ‘You don’t like it when Mrs R gives you a hug’ or ‘You think Mr B is acting weird’.
- Respond by talking 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 hug and you don’t like it. Telling me about it is the right thing to do. I can help if you want me to’.
Saying ‘no’: helping children stand up for themselves
It’s never a child’s responsibility to protect themselves from abuse. But learning to say no to unwanted touch or activity is an important part of children standing up for themselves and setting their own boundaries.
If your child doesn’t want to be tickled, kissed or hugged by an adult or another 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 them
- asks them to do something that feels unsafe, scary or confusing
- does something that makes them want to get away
- is threatening, bribing or blackmailing them
- has tricked them 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 saying no politely if they don’t like something. Then practise what to do if it doesn’t stop and they feel unsafe – for example, 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 correct 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.
Surprises 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 surprises and unsafe secrets.
For younger children, here’s how you could explain the difference:
- Surprises: ‘Surprises are good, like when Nanna tells you what she’s getting your sister for her birthday. This is a surprise for your sister. You might feel excited but not yucky about the surprise.’
- Unsafe secrets: ‘Some secrets might make you feel worried, like if a friend tells you that they’re going to take something that doesn’t belong to them. These sorts of secrets can make people feel unhappy and yucky. You need to tell me or another adult you trust. We can decide how to help you with the yucky feelings.’
For older children, here’s how you could explain the difference:
- Surprises: ‘You only have to stay quiet about surprises for a short time. They usually make people happy, and everyone knows about the surprise in the end, like 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 or another adult 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’ll 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 a lot of people around and you know people. In a safe place, you might feel calm or happy.’
- 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 and practise what they’d do and say. 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 an adult or another child you knew and liked did something that made you feel yucky or scared?’
- ‘What would you do if someone you didn’t know started messaging you on social media, even if they said they were a child?’
- ‘What would you do if someone on the internet asked you to send naked photos of yourself and said they would hurt you if you didn’t?’
- ‘What would you do if someone touched your body in a way that you didn’t think was OK?’
Children can be at risk of sexual abuse on the internet. You can protect your child from online sexual abuse by talking with them about internet safety for preschoolers, internet safety for school-age children and internet safety for pre-teens. Precautions against grooming are also important.