How to talk to your children about sexual abuse

How to talk to your children about sexual abuse

If you are like most parents, you’re likely to think that sexual abuse can never happen to your child. It’s someone else’s nightmare that you occasionally hear about on the news. When you do hear these horror stories, you’re just thankful that your own child is safe. However, parents should not be complacent. Your child may not be safe, as thousands of children are sexually abused each year. Even more upsetting is the fact that the abuse is usually perpetrated by someone the child knows and trusts, such as a mother’s boyfriend, a family member or a neighbor. Lately, several prominent politicians, actresses and authors have gone public with their stories. The takeaway: it impacted their lives in a profound, negative way. Parents take action!

My advice is that parents discuss this issue with their children. While this can be an uncomfortable subject, particularly if they think their child is too young, children in kindergarten have shown the capability to grasp these concepts if age-appropriate language is used. Parents need to use their discretion depending on the child’s age, but the important thing is to have the conversation. Statistics show that children of all ages are in danger of being targeted for abuse. It’s more common as children reach the ages of 8 to 12, but younger children are easy prey for perpetrators, too.

So, how do you start this conversation?

A basic concept that a parent can use in their conversation with their child is to frame the discussion around “safety” rather than “abuse,” which might be less scary for the child. Parents might start by discussing “private parts.” If parents and their children refer to these body parts with certain words (butt, breasts, pee pee, etc.), it might be helpful to use them in the conversation. The NYSPCC recommends using the correct names for body parts, but the most important thing in this conversation is that both the parent and the child are referring to the same body part.

For example, “I want to have a special talk with you about safety regarding your body. You have ‘private parts’ on your body. They are the parts that are covered by your swimsuit or underwear. Only certain adults are allowed to touch your private parts.” Then, let the child know that there are two kinds of touches, safe and not safe touches. The NYSPCC uses the terms “safe/unsafe” instead of “good/bad” as it makes it clearer for the child. For example, sometimes a good touch (e.g., vaccination in the doctor’s office) can feel bad to the child’s body, and a bad touch (e.g., inappropriate tickling/fondling) can feel good to the child’s body. The terms “safe/unsafe” eliminate this confusion. The parent should give examples of safe touches, such as a doctor or nurse during an exam with Mom or Dad in the room, Mom changing the baby’s diaper, or giving the toddler sister a bath. “These are safe touches and are okay.” You may ask the child to give you an example of a safe touch so that you are sure they understand the concept.

Unfortunately, “Sometimes there are people, and they could be people that you know and like, that may try to touch your private parts in ways that make you feel sad, mad, confused or uncomfortable. These are unsafe touches.” Give an example of someone putting their hand under a girl’s shirt or down a boy’s pants to touch their private parts. “The person may tell you that it’s a game, or that you will like these touches.” Again, ask the child to give you an example of an unsafe touch.

Then, focus the conversation on the fact that they must tell you right away if this ever happens to them. “What’s important is that you tell me or Dad (or whomever the child trusts) right away, so we can keep you safe.” Work with the child to identify several key adults that they trust and could go to if something happens. Ask them, “So who would you tell if this happened to you?” The NYSPCC recommends a list of three to four adults in case the parents are not available or in case the parents are preoccupied and not clearly interpreting the child’s cues on the matter. What’s important is that the child keeps telling until someone believes them and takes action.

The parent should also address the issue of secrecy or threat that some perpetrators use with children to keep them quiet about the abuse. “Even if the person who is touching you makes you promise not to tell, or tells you that they will be mad at you or they may hurt you if you tell, that does not matter. What they are doing is bad and not your fault. You must not keep it a secret, you must tell me right away. Then, I promise that I will take the steps needed to keep you safe.”

It is very important to reinforce with the child that it’s never their fault if they were touched in an unsafe way. It’s always the adult’s fault. And the parent’s job is to protect them.

How to talk to your children about sexual abuse

Provides parents and caregivers with tools to help them support children who have been victims of sexual abuse, information on the importance of talking to children and youth about body safety, and guidance on how to respond when children disclose sexual abuse. This fact sheet series also includes advice on how to cope with the shock of intrafamilial abuse and with the emotional impact of legal involvement in sexual abuse cases.

Related Resources

Acquaintance Rape: Information for Parents and Caregivers

Defines acquaintance rape, discusses the occurrence of acquaintance rape, and offers suggestions to parents on how they can protect their children.

Caring for Kids: What Parents Need to Know about Sexual Abuse (Webinar)

Explains how to differentiate between myths and facts regarding child sexual abuse and describes how to effectively respond to adolescent victims of acquaintance rape.

Child Sexual Abuse Fact Sheet: For Parents, Teachers, and Other Caregivers

Defines and answers commonly-asked questions about child sexual abuse. This fact sheet outlines myths and facts about child sexual abuse and provides tips to help protect children.

Child Sexual Abuse: Coping with the Emotional Stress of the Legal System

Offers information to parents and caregivers about child sexual abuse and coping with the emotional stress of the legal system.

Coping with the Shock of Intrafamilial Sexual Abuse: Information for Parents and Caregivers

Provides information for parents and caregivers on intrafamilial sexual abuse.

Preventing Acquaintance Rape: A Safety Guide For Teens

Offers teens information about acquaintance rape. This fact sheet provides information on what acquaintance rape is, how common it is, what date rape drugs are, how to stay safe, and common myths and facts about acquaintance rape.

Questions and Answers about Child Sexual Abuse

Provides parents and professionals with the answers to commonly asked questions about the impact of child sexual abuse.

Questions and Answers about Child Sexual Abuse Treatment

Provides parents and professionals with the answers to commonly asked questions about the impact of child sexual abuse treatment. This is a part of Caring for Kids: What Parents Need to Know About Sexual Abuse.

Sexual Development and Behavior in Children: Information for Parents and Caregivers

Provides parents and caregivers information on sexual development and behavior in children.

What Do I Do Now? A Survival Guide for Victims of Acquaintance Rape

Offers survivors of acquaintance rape information on what they can do now.

What to Do If Your Child Discloses Sexual Abuse: A Guide for Parents and Caregivers

Provides parents and caregivers with information about a child disclosing sexual abuse.

Understanding and Coping with Sexual Behavior Problems in Children: Information for Parents and Caregivers

Provides parents and caregivers with information about coping with sexual behavior problems.

Cuidando a los Niños: Lo Que Los Padres Necesìtan Saber Acerca Del Abuso Sexual Infantìl

Brinda a los padres y cuidadores las herramientas necesarias para apoyar a los niños que han sido víctimas de abuso sexual.

Your role in helping your child recover is crucial. They will need your ongoing support, belief and protection.

  • Spend time with your child.
  • Accept that your child may be acting differently.
  • Respect your child’s wishes and be sensitive to their emotional needs.

Speaking with your child about sexual abuse

The most important message to get across to your child is that you do not blame them for the abuse.

  • Tell them you believe them.
  • Reassure and support them.
  • Tell them you do not blame them.
  • Tell them you will try to keep them safe.
  • Let them know you love them.
  • Let them know you are glad they told you.
  • Give them time to talk at their own pace.
  • Make time to spend with your child so you can talk privately.
  • Be open and clear.
  • Allow your child to talk about how they feel.
  • Try to be calm when talking with your child, as they may be confused by anger.
  • Try to understand as much as you can about the effects of child sexual abuse so that you can best support yourself and your child.
  • blame your child for what happened
  • suggest that it would have been better if they had not told anyone
  • tell your child that you blame yourself
  • tell your child to forget it ever happened
  • tell your child not to talk about it
  • get upset when your child talks about the abuse.

Look after yourself

This is a very difficult time and you need to take care of yourself so that you can cope and be there to help your child.

  • talk to a counsellor, close friend or to other parents of children who have been sexually abused
  • look after your health
  • organise some time out for yourself.

Where to get help

    (Vic.) Tel. 1800 806 292 (24 hours) . Tel. 1800 737 732
  • If your family is involved with a Child Protection worker, speak to them about support services
  • Local community health centre
  • Responding to child abuse, Department of Human Services, Victorian Government. More information here.

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Signs that a child is being sexually abused are often present, but they can be indistinguishable from other signs of child stress, distress, or trauma. Knowing what to look for can help.

Signs of child sexual abuse can be physical and/or emotional, with physical signs being less common. Emotional signs can range from “too perfect” behavior to withdrawal, depression, or unexplained anger. It’s important to remember that some children may show no signs at all. There is also red flag behaviors you can identify if you know what to look for to help intervene in the grooming process.

Emotional Signs

Emotional and behavioral signs or changes are more common than physical signs and can include:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Sleep disturbances, including nightmares or night terrors
  • Change in eating habits
  • Unusual fear of certain people or places; reluctance to be alone with a certain person
  • Changes in mood that could including anger, aggressiveness towards parents, siblings, friends, pets
  • Rebellion or withdrawal; runaway behavior
  • Change in attitude towards school or academic performance; lack of interest in friends, sports, or other activities
  • Unexplained or frequent health problems like headaches or stomach aches
  • Poor self-esteem; avoidance of relationships
  • Self-mutilation or change in body perception, like thinking of self or body as dirty or bad; suicidal thoughts
  • Regression to previously outgrown behaviors, for example, bedwetting or thumb sucking
  • Abnormal sexual behaviors or knowledge of advanced sexual language and behaviors
  • Too “perfect” behavior or overly compliant behavior

Children’s Advocacy Centers provide trauma-sensitive, child-friendly, safe places for families to seek help. To find a center near you, contact the National Children’s Alliance, or call 1-800-239-9950. If you don’t have a center near you, call Child Protective Services or law enforcement in your area.

Physical Signs of Abuse

Direct physical signs of sexual abuse are not common. However, when physical signs are present, they may include bruising, bleeding, redness and bumps, or scabs around the mouth, genital, or anus. Urinary tract infections, sexually transmitted diseases, and abnormal vaginal or penile discharge are also warning signs.

There are other indirect physical signs that include:

  • Persistent or recurring pain during urination or bowel movements
  • Wetting or soiling accidents unrelated to toilet training
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Chronic stomach pain
  • Headaches

Child sexual abuse victims often exhibit indirect physical signs such as chronic stomach pain and headaches.

If you see physical signs of abuse, have your child examined by a professional immediately, or call the police.

How can you tell if an adult is taking too much interest in your child?

Child grooming is a deliberate process by which offenders gradually initiate and maintain sexual relationships with victims in secrecy. On the surface, grooming a child can look like a close relationship between the offending adult, the targeted child and (potentially) the child’s caregivers. By recognizing grooming behavior you can intervene, below are some examples of red flag behaviors:

  • Special attention/preference to a child
  • Gift giving
  • Touching or hugging the child

To learn more about child grooming and see examples of red flag behaviors, click here.

Children who have experienced sexual abuse can and do heal if they get support and psychological help.

Support can come from family and professionals.

Family support for children who have been sexually abused

There are things you can do in your everyday family life at home to support and help your child or the child you’re caring for.

Everyday life

  • Stick with regular routines for mealtimes, bedtimes, and school, kindergarten or preschool.
  • Share meals together regularly as a family. Talk about the things you’d normally talk about, like what people have been doing during the day.
  • Spend time together as a family and with people your child likes and trusts. For example, play family board games, go for walks, watch TV together and so on.
  • Make time to talk with your child one to one – for example, while you’re reading a book together before bed or driving to a sports game.
  • Help your child to set small, achievable goals – for example, trying a new hobby or going to sports training every week.

Relationships and feelings

  • Tell your child that you love them and will always be there for them, no matter what.
  • Show affection in the way that your child prefers. For example, your child might prefer a high five or fist bump rather than a hug or kiss.
  • Be patient if your child seems angry or frustrated. When your child is sad, distressed or worried, comfort and reassure them.
  • Encourage your child to tell you how they feel and label these feelings together. You could say, ‘How are you feeling this morning? You’re smiling – it looks like you’re feeling happy.’
  • If your child is young, try using ‘feelings’ pictures or cards to help your child express feelings. Picture books about feelings can also help.
  • If your child has trouble talking about feelings, suggest a diary or journal. Sometimes it’s easier to write things down or draw them than say them aloud.

Talking and listening

  • Tell your child that what has happened is not their fault.
  • Let your child know that you’re there to listen and talk about anything whenever your child is ready. Nothing is so awful that your child can’t talk about it.
  • Talk about being safe and feeling safe. For example, you could talk about people your child can go to for help.
  • Talk about the professional support that your child will be getting, so your child knows that you’ll work through it together.

There will be good and bad days. Keep giving your child as much support as you can, even on the bad days. If you’re not sure how to support your child, check in with your child’s psychologist or your counsellor. Together you can work out how to respond.

Professional support for children who have been sexually abused

Children who have experienced sexual abuse need professional help to heal.

The first step is to visit your GP to ask for a referral to a psychologist for your child or the child you’re caring for. It’s a good idea to book a longer consultation time.

You can ask your GP for help to find the right psychologist for your child. You might want to look for someone who:

  • specialises in working with children
  • has experience in working with children who have experienced child sexual abuse
  • is the gender your child prefers.

You might be able to arrange a trial appointment to see whether the psychologist is a good fit for you and your child.

You can also check with the GP on whether the psychologist is registered with the Australian Psychological Society, and what you need to do get Medicare benefits.

Working with a psychologist to recover from child sexual abuse

The best way for the psychologist to work with your child or the child you’re caring for is in individual sessions. It can also be a good idea to have sessions that include the whole family, or specific family members, but not the person who has abused your child if this person is a family member.

Your child is likely to have 10-20 hour-long sessions.

When you visit the psychologist, you could ask:

  • What will a typical session be like?
  • Will there be opportunities for other family members to be involved in some sessions?
  • How will you report back to me on my child’s progress?

There are services that can help children who have experienced sexual abuse, including Kids Helpline. The National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service can give you advice and refer you to other professionals. You can call its 24-hour phone line on 1800RESPECT or 1800 737 732.

Looking after yourself

If your child or the child you’re caring for has experienced sexual abuse, you might experience a range of feelings. You might feel stressed, pressured, confused, angry, horrified, disgusted, sad, betrayed, guilty or grief-stricken. Your family and your friends might feel this way too.

It’s important to remind yourselves that you’re not to blame.

It’s also important to look after yourself. Looking after yourself physically, mentally and emotionally will help you meet your child’s needs.

And it’s OK to ask for help. You can talk with friends and family whom you trust. Or talk with your GP, who can refer you to a counsellor. Your child’s psychologist might also be able to recommend someone experienced in working with parents and carers.

Want to talk to your child about sexual abuse but feel uncertain where to start? In this article, we explore how-to-guides and dos and don’ts.

Many of us grew up in homes where talking about sex and nudity was taboo. However, we now live in a world where sexual assaults are at an all-time high and sex is prevalent in all forms of mainstream media. Because of this, it’s really important that we start talking to our children about their private parts and sexual abuse from a young age. But how do we even start these conversations? And how do we make them effective?

About Childhood Sexual Abuse

Whether we like to hear it or not, childhood sexual abuse is a major problem in our world. In fact, Child Protective Services receives a claim or finds evidence of child sexual abuse every 9 minutes. What’s more, 93 percent of child sexual abuse victims know the perpetrator in some way.

While sexual assault is traumatizing enough as is when it happens, the effects of child sexual abuse can be long-lasting and affect a victim’s mental health. In fact, victims are four times more likely to experience PTSD as an adult and three times more likely to battle clinical depression. This happens, in large part, because children are too scared to tell their parents or other adults that the abuse happened.

How Parents Can Prevent Child Abuse

Research shows that when parents talk about personal safety with kids from a young age, it can reduce the likelihood that the child will become a target of sexual abuse. However, Dr. Tia Kim, VP of Education, Research, and Impact at Committee for Children, says that “even if parents and caregivers are motivated to have the conversations, they often don’t know how to begin.” This is why many experts recommend that you start conversations about sex and genitals from an early age.

When determining what to talk about, RAINN recommends teaching your child the appropriate terms for genitals, appropriate and inappropriate displays of affection, and how to say “no” when something feels uncomfortable. Furthermore, you should show children that there are no “off-limit topics” and that they can always confide in you. Help them understand the importance of sharing and doing the right thing, even when someone tells them that an activity or incident should “remain secret.”

Furthermore, parents can simply prevent sexual abuse by teaching children how to communicate their feelings in effective ways. In an interview with HuffPost, sex educator Lydia Bowers shared, “We have to be talking about what feels good and what doesn’t in everyday conversations. ‘I like when you give me a hug, it makes me feel warm,’ and ‘I don’t like when he took my doll, I felt angry,’ give children the language to describe their feelings, which can be critical in recognizing if they’re feeling unsafe, scared or worried.”

What Is Hot Chocolate Talk?

The Hot Chocolate Talk is a public awareness campaign for childhood sexual abuse discussions. Committee for Children, who started this campaign encourages families to use everyday moments to talk with their kids about sexual abuse as a prevention measure.

According to Dr. Kim, Committee for Children developed this specific How-to Guide “to take the guesswork out of knowing what to say and when to say it.” In fact, Dr. Kim says that this guide “offers warmth and comfort — like a cup of hot chocolate — to an uncomfortable conversation.”

Using decades of research, the team at Committee for Children created age-appropriate guides to help parents learn just how easy it is to start the conversation about sexual abuse. In fact, these guides provide parents with the exact words to say and the best moments to say them. Parents can simply go online and select the how-to guide that correlates with their child’s age, then print it out and start the conversation.

Sexual Abuse Talk Dos & Don’ts

When sitting down with your kids to discuss sexual abuse, there are some very specific dos and don’ts that you should follow.

Do: Talk openly and directly about sexual abuse, use media to make it relevant, and share your own experiences if they will help convey the point. Also, talk about other connected aspects like doing the right thing, standing up for friends, and other discussion points that don’t make the sole focus on your child.

Don’t: Avoid the discussion just because your child seems uncomfortable, make accusations or become aggressive, ignore anything your child shares with you.

Although talking to your child about sexual abuse may feel uncomfortable and go against everything you learned during your own childhood, these conversations are important for your child’s safety. If you aren’t sure where to start, remember that there are resources out there like Committee for Children’s Hot Chocolate Talk guides and other resources. Don’t wait until it’s too late to talk to your child about this information; start now.

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It can be stressful to plan a big safety talk about sexual assault with your kid. The good news is, you don’t have to. Conversations about sexual assault can be a part of the safety conversations you’re already having, like knowing when to speak up, how to take care of friends, and listening to your gut. The key is to start these conversations when your kids are young, and have these conversations often.

Start conversations about safety when your kids are young

Teach young children the language they need to talk about their bodies and information about boundaries to help them understand what is allowed and what is inappropriate. These lessons help them know when something isn’t right and give them the power to speak up.

  • Teach children the names of their body parts. When children have the words to describe their body parts, they may find it easier to ask questions and express concerns about those body parts.
  • Some parts of the body are private. Let children know that other people shouldn’t touch or look at them. If a healthcare professional has to examine these parts of the body, be present.
  • It’s OK to say “no.” It’s important to let children know they are allowed to say “no” to touches that make them uncomfortable. This message isn’t obvious to children, who are often taught to be obedient and follow the rules. Support your child if they say no, even if it puts you in an uncomfortable position. For example, if your child doesn’t want to hug someone at a family gathering, respect their decision to say “no” to this contact.

Talk about secrets. Perpetrators will often use secret-keeping to manipulate children. Let children know they can always talk to you, especially if they’ve been told to keep a secret. If they see someone touching another child, they shouldn’t keep this secret, either. Learn more about protecting a child from sexual assault.

Reassure them that they won’t get in trouble. Young children often fear getting in trouble or upsetting their parents by asking questions or talking about their experiences. Be a safe place for your child to share information about things that they have questions about or that make them uncomfortable. Remind them they won’t be punished for sharing this information with you.

When they come to you, make time for them. If your kid comes to you with something they feel is important, take the time to listen. Give them your undivided attention, and let them know you take their concerns seriously. They may be more likely to come to you in the future if they know their voice will be heard.

For an age-appropriate resource on talking to children about sexual abuse, see A Kids Book About Sexual Abuse.

Continue to engage teens in safety conversations

It’s important to create a dialogue about topics like safety and sexual assault with your teen. Consider these conversation starters to engage them in conversation.

Decades after losing her son to suicide, Janet Patterson wants to make sure parents are talking with their children about sexual abuse.

“The main thing is if you’re free to talk about what’s going on, they’ll feel more free to bring it up if there’s a problem,” Patterson said.

Sharilyn Ray is the founder and CEO of

. She has years of experience working with sexually abused children.

Ray says parents should start the conversation at a young age.

“I think as early as they are able to comprehend body parts,” Ray said. “We’re working with our young ones on ear, nose, mouth eyes, but also teaching them names for their private parts. It is during that time they can recognize what areas are their own personal space.”

Ray says use the technical names – not nicknames or slang terms. She says anything that’s covered with a swimsuit should be taught as a private area.

As children get older, parents need to continue to have that conversation. Rays says the majority of abuse happens by someone kids know and trust. So anytime they spend time away, ask them if anything happened. If anyone touched them where they shouldn’t

“Did someone make you feel uncomfortable in any way? Even asking “do you feel like someone invaded your bubble space?” Just to get them used to having that conversation with you and that door to be open,” Ray said.

She says it’s a conversation you should have often and don’t let your kids believe it’s a taboo topic.

“This is a picture of Eric when he was in high school and he had that detached look on his face. You see your child like this and you see them happy the next day and when you try to find out, they’re just naturally not going to say anything so its hard,” Patterson said.

“You have to work through the nonverbal stuff to get to the verbal,” Say said. “Sometimes a simple hug goes a long way, and silence goes a long way. Sometimes you have to build up to that comfortable place to where your kid can just word vomit to you.”

Rays says parents need to make sure to keep the guilt off their child.

“If you’re a victim, you’re a victim. You do not have control over someone’s actions. If you say no or you’re not inviting that, then it shouldn’t happen have,” Ray said.

Rays says if your child does admit to having been abused, first report it to law enforcement but don’t tell many people. Next, find a counselor for not only your child but also for you as a parent.