Talking to Children about Abuse

The Center for Family Safety and Healing and Nationwide Children's Hospital

Starting conversations with your children at a young age can help build a special bond and trust. In their early years, parents are one of the first role models a child will have before entering a day care or preschool. This is the perfect time for parents to teach children new things, such as respect, manners, how to tell the truth and general communication skills.

As your child grows, you may find yourself feeling anxious about him or her being around new people, such as teachers, coaches or other parents, when you are not present. Arming your child with the tools to communicate appropriate boundaries, especially when you are not around, is essential to help them develop healthy and trusting relationships with other adults.

So, how do you protect your child and establish appropriate boundaries? What should you do first?

Start the conversation early. Help your child identify safe adults. Ask who he or she feels comfortable talking to if they are worried or concerned about themselves or someone else. A helpful and fun tool to use with your child is theMy Trusted Triangle worksheet from Lauren's Kids, a nonprofit organization focused on sexual abuse prevention. The worksheet helps children name three adults or “grown-up buddies” who make them feel safe.

Set boundaries.Explain to your child that everyone has their own comfort levels when it comes to physical contact and personal space. Children should not be forced to hug or kiss a family member or other adult if they do not want to. Allowing children to voice their boundaries teaches them that it's OK to say no, and that there are other forms of affection, such as a wave, high five or fist bump.

Be clear on what's OK and what's not.Kids can have perfectly healthy relationships with grown adults. For example, with a healthy adult-child relationship, the adult respects the child and their boundaries, uses respectful language and tone, and uses clear and direct communication. Behavior that is not acceptable can include an adult asking a child to keep a secret, making inappropriate jokes or comments, offering alcohol/drugs or sharing sexual material such as photos or messages. Tell your child to trust their gut. If something feels uncomfortable or wrong, then it probably is. Remind your child that if these things ever happen to them or someone that they know, that they won't be in trouble if they tell.

Have a daily check-in with your child.If your child is active in after-school activities such as a sport, band or club, it's important to know what's going on. Try asking your child open-ended questions about their day, for example, “What did you do at recess?” or “What went on in class today?” Give them a chance to share their stories, feelings, questions and concerns. Let your child know that you want to learn what's important to them, and that it's OK to feel frustrated, upset or sad about something. Encouraging open communication is key.

Keep your cool. Your child might tell you something that you don't want to hear, and that's OK. As a parent or guardian, your child will look up to you, especially in how you react to difficult situations. We understand that your child's safety and well-being is important. Your child might tell you something that makes you feel emotional or overwhelmed. Keep in mind that your child is doing the right thing by always telling you the truth.

If your child, or a child you know, tells you about abuse and you aren't sure what to do next, contactWhere's The Line?anonymously by calling 844-234-LINE (5463), texting 87028 or live chatting This first-of-its-kind bystander campaign helps people who witness abuse or violence and aren't sure what to do. The information coordinator can help direct you to local resources and provide confidential answers and advice.

Resources and Prevention

“An Exceptional Children's Guide to Touch: Teaching Social and Physical Boundaries to Kids” by McKinley Hunter Manasco (available at local libraries)

Lauren's Kids

This nonprofit organization educates adults and children about sexual abuse prevention through in-school curricula, awareness campaigns and speaking

Nationwide Children's Hospital Big Lots Behavioral Health, 614-355-8080

A version of this column originally appeared online in February 2018 as part of the “Where's the Line?” campaign by The Center for Family Safety and Healing.

Recommended Reading

This list was compiled by the Columbus Metropolitan Library. Books can be borrowed by visiting any Central Ohio branch. Call numbers are included in the listings.

My Body Belongs to Me: A book about body safety by Jill Starishevsky, 2014.

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This straightforward, gentle book offers a tool parents, teachers and counselors can use to help children feel, be and stay safe. The rhyming story and simple, friendly illustrations provide a way to sensitively share and discuss the topic, guiding young children to understand that their private parts belong to them alone.

My Body Belongs to Me from My Head to My Toes by Pro Familia, 2014.

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This bookis an educational tool to help instill confidence in children when it comes to their bodies. The narrative of the story is led by a girl named Clara, who encourages kids to say “no” if they are uncomfortable with physical contact. The narrator gives readers tips about what they can say or do to avoid unwanted physical contact, or how to tell the right people in the event it has already occurred.

That Uh-oh Feeling: A story about touch by Katheryn Cole, 2016.

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No matter how hard she tries, Claire can't kick the soccer ball in a straight line. Her coach steps in and places his hand on her shoulder, telling her that she's too pretty to wear a frown. When he tickles her later and asks her to keep it a secret, Claire doesn't know exactly what's wrong, but she has that “uh-oh” feeling. She turns to her friends for help and learns that adults shouldn't ask kids to keep secrets about touch, so Claire tells her mother. By seeking help from others, this tricky situation is resolved happily.