Child Sexual Abuse

Communicating With Your Children

Good communication is, perhaps, the most critical child sexual abuse prevention strategy for parents. Talk to your children every day and take time to listen and observe. Learn as many details as you can about your children’s activities and feelings and encourage them to share concerns and problems with you. Explain to your children that:

  • Their body belongs to them alone. Tell them they have the right to say “no” to anyone who might try to touch them.
  • Some adults may try to hurt children and make them do uncomfortable things. Point out that these adults often call what they’re doing a secret between themselves and the children.
  • Some adults may even threaten children by saying that their parents may be hurt or killed if the children ever share their secret. Emphasize that an adult who does this is doing something wrong.
  • Adults who they know and trust or someone who might be in an authoritative position (like a babysitter or a teacher) might try to do something like this. Try not to scare your children — emphasize that most adults never do this and want to protect children from harm.

Choosing a Preschool or Child Care Center

Although most U.S. preschools and child care centers are safe, sexual abuse in these settings can occur, so be sure to choose a preschool or child care center carefully.

  • Check that the program is reputable. State or local licensing agencies, child care information and referral services and other child care community agencies may be good information sources.
  • Find out as much as you can about the teachers and caregivers. Talk with other parents who have used the program.
  • Learn about the program’s hiring policies and practices. Do they examine references, background checks and previous employment history before hiring?
  • Ask whether and how parents are involved. Does the center or school welcome and support participation?
  • Ensure that you have the right to drop in and visit the program at any time.
  • Make sure the program informs you about every planned outing. Never give the program blanket permission to take your child off the premises.
  • Prohibit, in writing, the release of your child to anyone without your explicit authorization. Make sure that the program knows who will pick up your child on any given day.

What to Do if Your Child Has Been Abused

  • Believe your child — children rarely lie about sexual abuse.
  • Commend your child for telling you about the experience.
  • Convey your support for your child. A child’s greatest fear is that he or she is at fault and responsible for the incident — alleviating this self-blame is of paramount importance.
  • Temper your own reaction, recognizing that your perspective and acceptance are critical signals to your child. Your greatest challenge may be to not convey your own horror about the abuse.
  • Don’t go to the school or program to talk about your concern. Instead, report the suspected molestation to a social services agency or the police.
  • Find an agency that evaluates sexual abuse victims — a hospital or a child welfare agency or a community mental health therapy group.
  • Search for a physician with the experience and training to detect and recognize sexual abuse when you seek a medical exam for your child.
  • Remember that taking action is critical because if nothing is done, other children will continue to be at risk.
  • If sexual abuse occurs, don’t blame yourself. Many individuals who molest children find employment and community activities that give them access to children. Most abuse occurs in situations where the child knows and trusts the adult.
  • Make sure your child knows that if someone does something confusing to him or her, like touching, taking a naked picture or giving gifts, you want to be told. Reassure the child and explain that he or she will not be blamed for whatever an adult does.

Physical & Behavioral Signs of Abuse

Children who may be too frightened to talk about sexual molestation may exhibit a variety of physical and behavioral signals that may be significant. Parents should assume responsibility for noticing such symptoms, including:

  • Extreme changes in behavior such as appetite loss
  • Recurrent nightmares, disturbed sleep patterns or fear of the dark
  • Regression to more infantile behavior such as bedwetting, thumb-sucking or excessive crying
  • Torn or stained underclothing
  • Vaginal or rectal bleeding, pain, itching and swollen genitals or vaginal discharge
  • Vaginal infections or venereal disease
  • Unusual interest in or knowledge of sexual matters, expressing affection in ways inappropriate for your child’s age
  • Fear of a person or an intense dislike at being left somewhere or with someone
  • Other behavioral signals such as aggressive or disruptive behavior, withdrawal, running away, delinquent behavior or failing in school

Tips for Kids

If anyone — even someone you know — touches you and you don’t feel right about it:

  • Say “no” and get far away.
  • Tell an adult you trust.
  • Keep telling someone until they believe you.
  • Remember — it wasn’t your fault.