When I was in elementary school, I remember coming home from school to find my mother watching talk shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show and Dr. Phil—and later at night, hard-hitting crime dramas like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Though I wasn’t nearly as enthralled by Phil or Oprah as my mother was, I regularly tried to weasel my way next to her on the couch while she watched her late-night shows that, in her words, “aren’t for kids.”
By the time I was 17, I was finally allowed to enjoy the franchise that is Law & Order—which I still love today. But before I started watching ripped-from-the-headlines stories of sex crimes against children and adults alike, I was no stranger to this tragic reality.
To learn more about how to talk to your child about predators, how to protect your child from sexual abuse, and the signs of sexual abuse, keep reading.
How to Talk to Your Child About Predators
These conversations aren’t easy, but they are essential. When planning your discussion, keep the following points in mind.
Define “Safe Adults”
Explain to your child that “safe adults” are adults they can trust. When an adult is “safe,” they would never inappropriately touch your child or make them feel uncomfortable. These adults won’t ask your child to keep secrets, discuss mature topics with your child, or communicate with your child in an inappropriate way. (For example: your child’s teacher sending them a private text message.)
When out and about with your child, take the opportunity to quiz them about their surroundings. Are there any landmarks nearby? Can they estimate the address of their location? This exercise teaches your child to pay close attention not only to where they are, but to what’s around them.
Encourage your child to be alert and aware of their environment at all times. Have them take a mental note of any dark or enclosed spaces, suspicious vehicles parked or driving, and empty buildings. It’s also beneficial for your child to stay unplugged from their phone and their music when they’re on their own—teach them to put away anything that may distract from their awareness.
Empower Them to Trust Their Gut
Confidence is one of the most valuable traits we can instill in our children. Remind your child that when something feels “off,” it is. No ifs, ands, or buts about it! When your child feels unsafe, grant them permission to sacrifice manners and politeness in order to escape the situation and get to safety.
If they’re being followed, they can change their direction, cross the street, move more quickly, or enter a nearby public building. If they are touched or grabbed, they should yell things like “This is not my parent!” or “Someone call 9-1-1!” And if your child can help it, let them know they should never accompany a stranger to their home, in their car, or into an enclosed area.
Keep Personal Information Private
If your child is active online, teach them to keep their personal information private. Personal information includes their full name, contact details, home address, school name and address, who they hang out with, where they hang out, and so on. If your child uses social media, make sure they know not to tag their location on their posts. Doing so makes it easier for strangers to connect the dots and track them down.
Additionally, your child should never meet up with someone they’ve made contact with online. Teach them the dangers of chat rooms and anonymous messaging. If your child is ever made uncomfortable by something they see online, offer them the space they need to safely share that with you.
How to Protect Your Child From Sexual Abuse
First, let’s be clear. You can do everything in your power to protect your child from sexual abuse, but it can still happen—and it isn’t your or your child’s fault.
While there are unfortunately no guarantees, there are steps you can take to reduce your child’s risk of experiencing sexual abuse.
- Be actively involved in your child’s life.
From their morning routine to their school schedule, engage with your child about their day-to-day life. Did they learn something new today? What was the best choice served at lunch this afternoon? The more you know, the clearer it will be when something doesn’t seem right.
- Ask open-ended questions.
Instead of questions that warrant a simple “yes” or “no” response, allow your child the opportunity to raise concerns or start tough conversations. Set aside some time, like at the end of each day, to check in with them. You could ask, “Is there anything you want to talk about?” or “What’s weighing on your mind?” to give them the chance to share potential problems.
- Offer reassurance.
Predators often persuade children to keep secrets in order to prevent them from reporting sexual abuse to their parents. Make it clear to your child that they will never get in trouble for telling you the truth, no matter what it is. When they do approach you, stay true to your word—and give them your undivided attention and unconditional support.
- Incorporate current events into your conversations.
If you hear about a case of sexual abuse on the news or see it on a TV show, use the event as a prompt to start a conversation with your child. You could ask them if they’ve heard of sexual abuse or what they would do if they were in that situation. Walking your child through these scenarios will arm them with the information they need in the event they’re victimized.
- Be picky about childcare providers and coaches.
Don’t just take their word for it. Whenever you’re hiring a babysitter or sending your child to an after-school activity run by adults, take the time to get to know those adults. Ask around for others’ opinions and experiences, do a little online research, and even run a background check or screening if you can!
- Teach your child about their anatomy.
It’s a common tactic of predators to assign “nicknames” or “codenames” to your child’s body parts. That way, when your child attempts to reveal sexual abuse, it’s unclear to you what they’re talking about. Teach your child the anatomically correct names of their body parts to prevent this confusion from taking place.
- Define and respect boundaries.
Instill in your child their right to reject anything that makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Children are just as entitled to bodily autonomy as any adult! Considering that 93% of perpetrators are known by their victims, family members and family friends are not exempt from respecting your child’s boundaries. Hugs, kisses, tickles, and other contact that may be unwanted by your child shouldn’t be tolerated. Likewise, remind your child to respect others’ boundaries as well.
- Have a family “safe word.”
In the event your child will need to be picked up by someone else, tell your replacement to share the family “safe word” with your child so they’re aware the swap is legitimate. Whenever the family “safe word” is used, be sure to replace it with another one so it cannot be recycled by the same person.
- Add parental controls to your child’s devices.
From the computer to the TV, there are all sorts of programs you can install to ensure your child is not encountering anything they shouldn’t. Better yet, our supremely safe smartphone for kids has all the built-in protection you need to keep your kids protected. No contact from strangers, no social media, no pornography, and so much more awaits!
Signs of Sexual Abuse
The heartbreaking reality of sexual abuse is that 1 in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys will be sexually abused by an adult in their lifetime.
While recognizing the warning signs of sexual abuse won’t turn back the clock, it will stop the sexual abuse from continuing—and get your child the help they need sooner rather than later.
Signs in Young Children
- Erratic sleeping patterns or frequent nightmares
- Wetting the bed
- Refusing to remove clothing for baths or bedtime
- Referring to their body as “bad” or “dirty”
- Using different words for body parts
- Changes in appetite, trouble swallowing, or outright refusal to eat
- Sudden and extreme mood swings
- Writing about or drawing disturbing or sexual imagery
- Reenacting sexual behavior with toys
- Acquiring gifts without explanation
- Talking about having an adult friend
Signs In Teenagers
- Anxiety or depression
- Self-harm and suicide attempts
- Disordered eating
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- High-risk sexual behavior
- Rebellion and legal trouble
- Resistance to intimacy
While these warning signs can indicate instances of sexual abuse, it’s important to remember that these behaviors can also be triggered by stressful events such as death, divorce, bullying at school, or another traumatic experience.
If you suspect your child has been sexually abused, you can call or text the ChildHelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453 for professional guidance and support. They’re available 24 hours a day every day of the week in over 170 languages—and all calls are confidential.
Sexual abuse is a devastating and life-altering event. But through these preventative efforts, we can work together to reduce its impact on our children.
For more information and resources about preventing sexual abuse, click here.