How parents and caregivers can prevent child sexual abuse

Tips from Stuart House, a program of the Rape Treatment Center.

One in 10 children in the U.S. are sexually abused before the age of 18. Ninety percent of these children know their abuser, says Marisa Faynsod, LCSW, a therapist and community outreach coordinator with Stuart House, a program of UCLA Health’s Rape Treatment Center specializing in child sexual abuse.

Child sexual abuse most often occurs in one-on-one situations, Faynsod says: More than 80% of cases happen when a child is alone with a perpetrator.

“What this tells us is that we actually have power,” she says. “If we eliminate or reduce one-on-one situations, we’re actually going to reduce the risk of sexual abuse.”

At a recent workshop for parents and caregivers, Faynsod outlined actionable ways to protect children from sexual abuse.

Talk to your child about their body

It’s important to talk with children — even those as young as 2 or 3 — about their bodies, using proper anatomical names for body parts, Faynsod says.

“We don't want to use words like cookie and pee-pee,” she says. “We want to use the correct terminology like penis, vagina, vulva, anus.”

When children use these words, it lets other adults know that a parent or caregiver has talked to the child about their anatomy. And if the child suddenly starts using different terms for their genitals, it cues caregivers that the child picked up the language elsewhere.

Discuss healthy and unhealthy touch

Children need to know that nobody should be touching their private parts unless they need help in the bathroom or are seeing their health care provider, Faynsod says.

She suggests parents talk with children about different types of touches: “healthy, appropriate, safe, thumbs-up touches” versus “unhealthy, unsafe, inappropriate, yucky, thumbs-down touches.”

“We want kids to listen to their bodies and listen to their instincts,” she says. “An unhealthy or unsafe touch is a touch that makes children feel uncomfortable, scared, upset or yucky. Healthy behavior, such as a hug or a high-five, feels good. It makes us feel happy and cared for.”

She uses “healthy” and “unhealthy” rather than “good” and “bad” to describe touch because even touch that is unwanted might feel good physically.

“Sometimes kids have not come forward because the touch felt good,” Faynsod says. “And they thought, ‘It felt good, so it can’t be wrong.’”

Empower children by helping them understand that when it comes to touch, they are in charge of their body, Faynsod says. This also means that parents and caregivers allow children to decline giving a kiss or hug to a relative or friend.

“Oftentimes, this takes adjusting our view or approach,” she says. “Because maybe culturally or generationally, it’s disrespectful to refuse to give a hug or kiss … . But we should never force kids to hug or kiss anybody.”

Clarify privacy, tricks and secrets

Children are entitled to privacy, Faynsod says — a reflection of their ownership over their body. That means, once it is age appropriate, being able to go to the bathroom alone, change clothing or bathe alone. This may require adults to adjust their approach to privacy, she says.

Parents and caregivers can also help children be aware of tactics predatory people might use to persuade them into scenarios that aren’t safe. Healthy touches and safe relationships never involve secrecy, bribes or tricks.

“No adult should ask a child to keep a secret from their parent or caregiver,” Faynsod says. “Safe adults do not need help from children. That doesn't mean they don't need help with the laundry or the dishes or setting the table, right? But safe adults don't need a child to help bathe them. Safe adults don’t need a child to help them go to the bathroom or to take pictures of them.”

Children should be aware of bribes, such as an adult offering ice cream or a toy or money in exchange for physical contact or the chance to look at their body. And be on the lookout for tricks, such as playful wrestling that always results in the child’s bottom, breasts or genitals being touched.

“If we eliminate or reduce one-on-one situations, we’re actually going to reduce the risk of sexual abuse.”

Marisa Faynsod, LCSW, a therapist and community outreach coordinator with Stuart House

As a mother of elementary school-age children, Faynsod practices a no-secrets policy in her household, she says. If an adult offers candy, for instance, but tells the child not to tell their parents, “what we want to see happen is the child to say, ‘I'm sorry. In my family, we don't keep secrets, so I’ll have to ask my parents first,’” Faynsod says.

Understanding normal childhood development can help parents and caregivers notice behaviors that might be unusual. Trust your gut, Faynsod says. If your child’s behavior changes or is concerning, consult your pediatrician or a mental health professional.

Practice with your child; reassure them it’s OK to say no

Faynsod recommends parents discuss safe behaviors with their children and give them an opportunity to practice saying no.

“Just use everyday scenarios with your kid,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be an uncomfortable lecture or conversation.”

For instance, ask your child if the playground monitor said, “Let’s go get an ice cream at recess,” what would they do? Or, if a car pulled up outside their school and an adult they didn’t know invited them to get in, how would they respond? What would they say if somebody touched them in a way that made them feel uncomfortable?

“We want to let our kids know that it’s OK to say no to an adult or an authority figure,” Faynsod says. “Most importantly, we want to let kids know that they’re not going to get in trouble for saying no if a situation doesn’t feel safe to them.”

Be an involved parent

Because most instances of child sexual abuse happen when a child is alone with an adult, it pays to be involved as a caregiver and know what kind of circumstances your child may be in, Faynsod says.

If your child is going to another child’s house, ask questions of the parents: Who will be home? Where will the kids be playing?

If your child comes home from school with something you didn’t buy for them, ask where they got it.

“As an adult with children in your life, I want you to just be curious: Why would an adult have a special relationship with your child? Why would a coach only want to take your child to ice cream?” Faynsod says.

She also suggests showing up early or unannounced to the child’s activities from time to time. Come home before you told the babysitter you’d be back. Drop in on an after-school activity or sports practice. “What deters an abuser,” Faynsod says, “is anything that increases their risk of getting caught.”

Learn more about the Rape Treatment Center.