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Six Ways to Teach Children to Recognize Abuse

Studies show that at least one in ten children in the United States will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday. While some new laws are giving survivors a broader path to justice, it’s important to focus on abuse prevention. A recent article in the New York Times described steps parents and caregivers can take to protect children and teach them to recognize sexual abuse.

  1. Teach children that their feelings matter, and that they deserve respect. Maintaining and teaching the validity of their feelings helps foster a sense of self and helps children recognize their own emotions. Children who have a stronger sense of validation as to appropriate behavior are better protected from manipulation by abusers.
  2. Emphasize that children’s bodies belong to them. A healthy understanding of bodily autonomy, consent, and boundaries will go a long way toward protecting children. Use simple, age-appropriate language to explain that the rules of touching their body apply to everyone — even family members and neighbors — and that no one is allowed to make them feel uncomfortable or touch their private areas.
  3. Make sure children understand the difference between secrets and surprises. Parents and caregivers may teach children that secrets should never be kept about their private areas. Secrets can make children feel confused, sad, gross, or guilty, especially when they come from an adult. A useful example is a doctor’s visit, which may involve talking about or touching private areas, but is not a secret. You may also explain that withholding a surprise — such as a party or a gift — is different from a secret, because the recipient of a surprise will eventually know, and will likely feel happy about it. 
  4. Share your own stories, including as many feelings or sensations as you can. Sharing your experiences can help children learn what it means to express themselves and put words to the gut feelings they don’t understand. Communicating these things may encourage children to share their own feelings of anger, confusion, and sadness, and to understand that others can feel this way too. 
  5. Ask for permission before touching a child. That is to say, even for something as small as adjusting a child’s collar or tying their shoes, it’s important to ask before doing so. This sends the message to the child that they have control over their body, that they can say “no,” and helps them recognize that a predator’s behavior is not appropriate, because a predator will not ask for permission.
  6. Empower children to say “no,” and to talk openly. Encouraging emotional honesty is critical to helping children gain control over their bodies. Letting children say “no” to a hug, for example, can show them that they have those choices. Some children may not be able to say “no” to their abuser, or stop the abuse. Tell children that, even if they can’t prevent the abuse, the most important thing to do is tell someone about it, and that you will believe them no matter what happens, and that they will not get in trouble for informing you.

The original article, from which this post was adapted, was published on July 22, 2019 in the New York Times Parenting section, and written by Dr. Shani Zoldan-Verschleiser. 

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