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How to Talk to Your Child About Abuse

When it comes to talking to children about abuse, starting the conversation is the most important step. Empowering kids to feel like they can talk to you about any kind of abuse — physical, emotional, sexual — can literally save lives.

In Tennessee, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 7 boys will be sexually abused by age 18.

So it’s crucial to establish an open line of communication with kids as early as you can.

But there are some do’s and don’ts when it comes to broaching the subject. Many parents inadvertently send mixed messages, so below is a guide on what to say — and what not to say — when talking about child sexual abuse with kids.

Tips for talking to kids about child sexual abuse

The information below comes from Our Kids, a Nashville nonprofit that has provided crisis counseling and medical exams to more than 24,000 children and families affected by child sexual abuse. They noticed that parents worried about sexual abuse sometimes use language that inadvertently makes it more difficult for a child to disclose what’s happening to them. Here are examples of what not to say, why and what to say instead.

What not to say: “Don’t let anyone touch your private parts.”

Why

Adults and older children are usually bigger and stronger, so they can intimidate or manipulate a child. If you tell your child not to “let” anyone touch their private parts, a child may think they will get in trouble if touching occurs, which puts the blame on them. They may think: “Mom or Dad told me not to let this happen, and it did, so I’m going to get in trouble.”

What to say instead

  • “If anyone touches your private parts, it’s okay to tell me.”
  • “It’s always okay to tell if someone touches your private parts.”

What not to say: “I’ll kill anyone who touches your private parts.”

Why

More than 95% of children who are sexually abused know their abuser — often it’s a relative, caregiver or family friend who they have a relationship with. While your initial reaction to someone touching your child may be very strong, the child may think they’re responsible for the safety or well-being of a person loved by the family. Children are generally afraid of adult anger and worry it’s directed at them, so avoid saying things that fuel that concern.

What to say instead

“My job as your Mom/Dad is to protect you and take care of you, but I can’t be around all the time. So if anyone does anything that makes you feel funny or scared or touches you, it’s okay to tell me.”

What not to say: “Has someone touched you?” OR “Has anyone touched you down there?”

Why

Constantly asking your child if anyone has touched them can be overwhelming. “Has anyone ‘touched’ you?” can also confuse younger children. In a child’s mind, of course people “touch” them — young children who need assistance with toilet training may be touched “down there” in ways that are appropriate and necessary.

What to say instead

  • “Has anyone done anything that worries or confuses you?”
  • “Is there anything bothering you?”
  • “Are you okay?”

What not to say: Negative or confusing words for your child’s genitals

Why

When referring to your child’s private parts, calling it a “nasty” or “dirty” part of the body can confuse them. So can calling it something you think may sound “nicer”. It’s important that children of all ages know the names for their body parts, and know that all of their body is okay. Using substitute names for body parts can be confusing if a child discloses to another adult and uses the substitute name.

What to say instead

  • “That is your private part.”
  • “That is your vagina.” or “This is your penis.”

What not to say: “I promise not to tell anyone.”

Why

Before a child discloses, they may ask you to promise not to tell. You may want to promise your child anything in that moment, but making a promise you’ll have to break could be damaging to the child, and you will have to break it: If there is abuse, it is always in the best interest of the child to report it — and it’s required by law.

What to say instead

“I can’t promise not to tell, but I can promise that I will do whatever I can to help you. Let’s talk about what is bothering you. I believe you, and I want to help.”

For more information on child sexual abuse or to download a printable PDF of this information, click here.


Tennessee is a mandatory reporting state, which means if you have concerns about the safety or well-being of a child, you must call 1-877-237-0004 to report your concerns.

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville). As Content Producer/Writer at bohan Advertising, she is a writer, editor and social media strategist.

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WellTuned provides inspiration and practical advice for healthy living.
WellTuned does not offer medical advice. Any personal health questions should be addressed to your doctor.

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