Talk about Sexual Abuse with Your Children

My 9-year-old recently had a several-week bout of insomnia. He has never had sleep issues so, by the third or fourth night, I started to worry about things that could have potentially triggered this.

My husband and I asked him about school, friends, and fears. We racked our brains trying to think about frightening news items he might have seen or heard about.

The Most Difficult Question

All these were the easy questions, though. We still had to delve into one last disturbing topic with our son: sexual abuse. Pediatricians are trained to always be on the lookout for instances of potential sexual abuse--but asking the right questions and having a conversation with a child about this topic are hard, even for a pediatrician!

Fortunately, my son's insomnia ran its course and we are fairly certain that nothing horrible happened to him to cause it.

What to Know

Sadly, sexual abuse is much too common. The topic is frightening to both parents and children. So what do you need to know to help you and your child navigate this topic and, it is hoped, prevent it from happening?

  • Sexual abuse is any inappropriate sexual contact with a child. Sexual abuse does not have to involve intercourse and it frequently does not, at least not initially. Touching a child's genitals, taking naked pictures of a child, or showing children pornography are all examples of sexual abuse.
  • Most sex offenders are not strangers. They are people known to the child--e.g., relatives, coaches, teachers, babysitters, the parents or siblings of friends, and the like.
  • Sex offenders typically don't try to physically dominate children. More commonly, they try to manipulate or coerce the child into submission. For example, they might threaten to hurt the child or to hurt someone in the child's family, if he or she doesn't cooperate.
  • Child victims often have respectful and obedient temperaments. They may also crave attention.

What steps can you take to try to prevent sexual abuse?

  • Starting at toddler age, teach your child all the body parts, including the genitalia--and use the proper names. Let them know it is okay to talk about their body parts with you.
  • Teach them that, on the other hand, they should not discuss these body parts in public.
  • From an early age, let them know that no one is allowed to touch their genitals. Let them know that you may have to touch them occasionally, if they need help in the bathroom or during bathing, but otherwise they should feel comfortable saying "NO!" This would also be a good time to explain that the doctor might also have to check them during an exam, but that you will be there with them.
  • Teach your child that they should never be alone with another adult. I always tell my kids that there is no reason that a teacher would need to be all alone in a room with them, or that a team coach would need to follow them into the bathroom/changing room/showers. Once again, let them know that, if something like this should ever happen, they can say "NO!" and go get help--and that they should always let you know about it.
  • Talk to your child about ways adults may try to trick or coerce children into doing something they don't want to--e.g., by offering the child candy, or asking them to help look for a "lost puppy."
  • Tell them to always talk to you about any situation with an adult that makes them uncomfortable, particularly if the adult tells them not to tell their parents. Often, a sexual predator will make the child think that the child will get into trouble if they tell, or that some harm might come to a family member. Let your child know that they mustn't believe such threats, and that it's extremely important to tell you.
  • Monitor sudden changes in your child's mood or behavior. For example, changes in school performance, loss of interest in normal activities and friends, or anxiety or aggression should always lead you to initiate a conversation with your child, to find out what, if anything, has affected them.
  • Note, however, that some children might not show any behavior changes.
  • Take your child seriously if he or she discloses any concerning information, and see your pediatrician for further guidance.

Fortunately, as I said, my son's insomnia ran its course and nothing horrible seemed to be behind it. But this episode opened up a conversation about all the issues above, and reminded me that this discussion needs to be ongoing between you and each of your children.

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