How Should You Counsel Your Kids on Sexual Abuse?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

We previously heard from readers and experts about how to talk to very young children about consent as a foundation for more explicit discussions about rape and sexual assault when they’re older and more mature—and far more likely to encounter such dangers. But this next reader, based on personal experience, warns against assault occurring when those kids are still so young:

Thank you and Caroline for hosting a sane discussion on sexual safety. I’d prefer to remain anonymous on this; I don’t want to attract unwanted attention.

I was truly bothered by [the reader note from a parent] teaching a 5-year-old girl karate so that she could someday defend herself from rape. Not that I’m against teaching 5-year olds karate; it’s a great way for children to learn self discipline and focus, and it builds habits that will benefit a person throughout their life.

The thing that got me here was the false sense of security, particularly when it comes to a child’s safety from sexual predators—because the most likely predator for that girl, until she begins developing secondary sexual traits, is a friend or family member who actively cultivates her love, someone who grooms her. And no amount of physical self defense will help her through the violation of trust she’ll experience.

Perhaps that’s a different discussion, but the threat to that girl isn’t date rape or violent “forced rape” (all rape is forced); it’s the friend or family member who’s potentially already on the inside of her parent’s circle of trust.

I say this as both a victim of a pedophile and a victim of a rape. Looking back, I see that the arc of the pedophile to the date rapist could almost be predicted. My pedophile destroyed my trust and replaced the concept that I had a right to consent with risky sexual behavior as a way of reclaiming my sexuality from him. It took me a very long time to work it out.

I don’t have an answer to teaching consent, other than to say that setting an example of consent and respect is the best way to teach consent and respect.

A good place to start is a piece from Parenting magazine called “Tips for Child Sex Abuse Prevention,” written in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

The writer, Patty Onderko, backs up our reader’s assertion about the most common source of sexual abuse: “80 to 90 percent of abuse is committed not by strangers but by someone the child knows well—and possibly loves.” Here’s some expert advice via Onderko:

Don’t keep secrets.

Sex abusers almost always manipulate the children they molest through secrets. They’ll tell kids, “This is our secret. You can’t tell your mom because she’ll be very mad at you.” Remind your child frequently that no adult should ever ask her to keep secrets. And that includes you. “If you keep a secret with your child, it confuses the message that it’s not okay for other grown-ups to do,” says [Char Rivette, executive director of the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center].

Continued here. If you have any insight into this particular kind of abuse, please let us know. Update from reader Jennifer:

Another great resource is Darkness to Light, which presents the Stewards of Children training on ways to prevent child sexual abuse.

It talks about talking to your children in age appropriate ways as an important first step. Yes, talk to your kids about not keeping secrets. But also talk to them about bodily autonomy. Things that may seem innocuous (tickling a child when he says stop, hugging a child when she doesn’t want to) sends the message that they don’t have control over their bodies. Respect those boundaries.

The training also talks about minimizing opportunities and best practices for schools and churches to utilize to prevent opportunities for sexual abuse to occur (e.g. minimizing the amount of time where one adult is alone with one child). I've taken the training and I can’t recommend it enough for anyone who has children in their lives.

Another reader, Jack, recommends a children’s book called Sex is a Funny Word: “It’s an excellent sex-ed book for kids written by Cory Silverberg with a really powerful chapter about Secret Touch.”