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Honesty is vital when talking to children about sexual abuse

Man and boy talking

In this article, you’ll find answers to questions like:

1. How and when should I tackle a conversation?
2. What are some safety guidelines?
3. What are predatory signs?

It’s a scary topic, but experts say the best way to try to protect your children from sexual abuse is to talk about it with them.

They need to know, for example, that the biggest risks aren't strangers but acquaintances, such as friends’ parents and coaches. Older children also need to know that social media poses a risk, because someone pretending to be a teen may try to lure them into prostitution.

“Children are much less squeamish talking about topics such as private body parts and things that could harm them than adults,” says Donna Eurich, former education and training administrator for the Office of Safe Environments of the Diocese of Palm Beach.


Simple conversations as early as the toddler years reinforce who the safe adults are, says Anne-Marie Brown, senior trauma therapist of the Childhood Trauma Response Program at Center for Child Counseling in Palm Beach Gardens. Tell them which adults are permitted to touch their private parts, like medical professionals. But be sure to point out that Mommy or Daddy still need to be in the doctor’s room with them.

“Use proper language for body parts,” she says. “And make sure your child knows they can always come and talk to you if anything scary happens.”

A straightforward approach empowers children and builds their self-confidence, says Dee Rohe, former licensed therapy coordinator of the Palm Beach County's Victim Services and Certified Rape Crisis Center. 

“Just like fire drills and bus safety skills, personal protection skills can be practiced,” she says. “Practice these skills with your kids as part of your everyday routine to make them second nature.”

Rohe suggests arming your child with a secret code word. “In the event someone comes to your child and says, ‘Your mom is in the hospital and asked me to pick you up,’ your child can respond, ‘What’s the code?’ ” she says.

Playing a what-if game of scenarios can teach steps to stay safe, Rohe says, such as keeping a safe distance from a driver who stops to ask for directions.


KidSmartz abduction prevention program emphasizes four safety rules — check first with a parent before activities, take a friend, tell people no and tell a trusted adult if concerns arise — says Nancy McBride, former executive director of Florida Outreach for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

“The corresponding videos deal with issues like uncomfortable touch and feeling confused about a person’s intentions,” she says. “It also helps children understand that anyone who makes them feel scared, uncomfortable or confused is someone they need to speak to a trusted adult about.”

The stranger-danger guideline is a bit misleading because abusers are usually people who families trust, Brown says. It’s better to set boundaries.

“Make sure children know it’s not good or bad touch, because that’s where a lot of confusion starts — since sometimes that unsafe touch feels good,” she says. Instead, explain safe vs. unsafe touch.

Rohe encourages children to listen to their gut. “If their inner voice is saying, ‘Something’s wrong,’ tell them to pay attention. Let kids know that if something doesn’t feel right about a person or a situation, it’s OK to leave.” And don’t worry about feeling embarrassed or offending someone.

Children can flee to a trusted adult, a friend’s home, a teacher, a grocery store, or look for a Safe Place sign at fire stations, libraries and social service agencies, Rohe says. Children can text “safe” with their location (address, city, state) to 69866 to find the closest Safe Place.

“If the situation feels funny or scary, let them know it’s OK to yell or wave their arms, jump up and down to attract attention or run,” she says. They can text a parent or use smartphone safety apps, such as bSafe or Circle of 6.

“By teaching them to recognize and avoid potentially dangerous situations and teaching them to say no, they will understand they can stand up for themselves,” McBride says.  


Predators pry their way into children’s lives by gaining their trust to ultimately isolate, and then control, them with verbal or physical threats, Rohe says.

“The most important thing to do is pay attention to who is paying attention to your child, in particular an overly friendly adult or a significantly older child,” she says.

Consider their frequency and patterns of behavior. For example, do they:

  •  Often try to touch the child?
  • Tickle, stroke, wrestle or encourage the child to sit in their lap? 
  • Give frequent or lavish gifts, praise or extra attention? 
  • Frequently offer to babysit or help with the kids?
  • Often invite the child to their house or to spend the night? 
  • Make inappropriate comments about the child’s looks or body? 
  • Offer rides home or trips to the mall or fun activities? 
  • Spend a lot of time with children instead of age-appropriate friends?

Another red flag could be someone who makes promises to you and the child, such as a coach or photographer who wants to make the child a star, McBride says. In this case, they are trying to gain the trust of the parent too. 

It’s important to explain these tricks to your child. “For older children, monitor their online activity, especially social media, to see if they’re communicating with people they don’t know,” she says.

A sign something's wrong? “They may become withdrawn and isolated from family and friends.”

Human traffickers also use false promises and even love to lure children. Then they confiscate their identification documents, threaten violence and commit physical, psychological and/or sexual abuse. Visit Catholic Charities' anti-human trafficking website for more information.

Youth sports programs give adults direct access to children. So it’s best to ensure your child’s program has policies and procedures that address potentially risky circumstances, such as overnight trips, changing in locker rooms and riding in vehicles with coaches or volunteers.


  • Low self-esteem
  • Weak relationship with parents
  • Strong devotion to the coach
  • Low awareness of sexual abuse
  • Smaller physique
SOURCE: Safe to Compete: Protecting Child Athletes from Sexual Abuse

Lastly, if someone assaults or attempts to assault your child, these local resources can help:


• Nancy McBride, former executive director of Florida Outreach, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children

• Donna Eurich, former education and training administrator, Office of Safe Environments, Diocese of Palm Beach

• Dee Rohe, former licensed therapy coordinator, Palm Beach County's Victim Services and Certified Rape Crisis Center

• Anne-Marie Brown, senior trauma therapist, Childhood Trauma Response Program, Center for Child Counseling

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