4 things all parents should do to help prevent sexual abuse

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

The trial of Larry Nasser, the physician who sexually abused female gymnasts, has been deeply disturbing. It’s hard to fathom how he managed to abuse hundreds of girls for so many years. Sadly, this can happen with sexual abuse. Very often, the perpetrator is someone known to the family, someone they may even trust. Very often, victims don’t understand that what is happening to them is abuse — and very often, talking about it is hard because of shame and fear.

As a society, we need to do a better job of protecting our children. But there are also lessons that parents can teach their children that can help keep them safe. Here are some suggestions from the American Academy of Pediatrics:

1.  Teach children the names of their body parts. It can feel awkward, as we sometimes think of words like “penis” or “vagina” as words that shouldn’t be used in regular conversation — and words we don’t want our preschoolers saying to other children at the playground. But by teaching them the actual names of all of their body parts, including their genitals, we do two important things: we give them the proper words to use to tell us should something happen, and we let children know that you are allowed to talk about all of your body parts, including your genitals.

2.  Make sure children know that not only are genitals “private,” but that nobody should touch them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. Another way of thinking of this is as “good touches” and “bad touches.” Any touch anywhere that is unwelcome, or feels inappropriate for the situation, is something that children should tell their parents about. This is important because often sexual abuse can begin in insidious ways, with perpetrators showing affection that isn’t sexual — extra hugs, touching an arm or a leg, a kiss.

This does not mean that every touch on the arm from a grownup is bad. The vast majority are perfectly fine. But it’s important to help children listen to their instincts and to teach them to let parents know about any touches. Parents, too, need to listen when a child tells them about a touch that made them uncomfortable. Never brush it off. Always take it seriously, ask questions, and understand what it was that made it uncomfortable.

3.  Teach children that it’s not okay for a grownup to ask them to keep a secret. Okay, maybe they shouldn’t tell Mommy what Daddy has planned for her birthday. But in general, it’s not a good idea, and as with touches, secrets can start as small and seemingly innocent.

4.  Create an environment where it’s okay to talk about sex. Sometimes what keeps a child from saying anything is that it feels awkward and shameful. Teaching the appropriate names for body parts is a start, but as children grow, keep up the conversation. Talk about body changes, body image, sexuality, and healthy relationships. When there are sexual images or messages in the media, instead of ignoring them, use them as conversation starters. And when there are events in the news such as the Nasser case, use them as an opportunity to reiterate messages around good/bad touches and secrets. Let children know that these are topics that you are happy to discuss.

In general, talking about sex is hard for parents. We want our children to stay innocent. But by allowing and encouraging conversations, not only do we set our children on a path toward healthier relationships, but we also help keep them safe.


  1. scotty

    never leave your child alone with a strange adult–and that includes your doctor. Sadly, abusers like gymnastics doctors and catholic priests groom their victims long before they lay a hand on them , so it is very difficult for both parent and child to see the warning signals.
    Most important is having the kind of relationship with your child so that any subject can be talked about anytime. Your child’s credibility needs to have the same value as that of a “respected” relative or authority figure, so that even outlandish tales should not be dismissed out of hand. Young children do have vivid imaginations, so the parent needs to be able to separate fact from fiction. Giving your child the benefit of the doubt may mean the difference between embarassment and abuse.
    We should not have to raise our children in a bubble, but today’s climate requires much more vigilance against harm.

  2. Lee

    I think the most important thing is to make it clear that you love and trust your child. In many cases, children do try to tell their parents, but the parents believe the “respected” adult. Even a very young child can say “He touched me down there,” without ever knowing the terminology. But no child will tell if they suspect their parents won’t believe them or will blame them.

    I write from experience, my father having blamed me for my stepfather repeatedly molesting me. I suspected he would, so I didn’t tell for a long time. When I finally did, I learned the most important lesson of my life: to trust my own instincts.

    I eventually forgave my stepfather, because as an adult, I realized he had been constantly abused during his own childhood and was seriously damaged. I never forgave my father and didn’t even attend his funeral.

    Your children can’t trust you if they suspect you don’t trust them. Kids are smarter than many adults think.

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