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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

A Parent's Life A Parent's Life

Protecting Children From Sexual Abuse

December 16, 2013

By Claire McCarthy M.D.

Boston Children's Hospital

The stories in the media about sexual abuse just never seem to stop.

As a parent, it's easy to react by saying that you aren't going to send your child to summer camp. But summer camp, and other activities like it, can be great experiences for children. Keeping them home isn't good for them.

Parents absolutely need to make good choices about where they send their children. But they also need to make sure that there are safeguards and policies to prevent abuse wherever their children go. Unfortunately, child abuse can happen anywhere.

We teach our children to be careful around strangers. But the sad truth is that children are usually molested by people they know — and often people they trust.

Parents need to give children the information and skills they need to be safe when they are away from them. Here are three things all parents should do:

  1. Talk to your child about which parts of the body are private. If it's covered by a bathing suit, it's private. Teach the real names of body parts, too, so anyone can understand what part your child means. You want your children to have an awareness of and appreciation for their bodies — and to feel comfortable talking about them.
  2. Talk to your child about good and bad touches. A bad touch is a touch that makes them feel uncomfortable. In some situations a touch on the arm can be inappropriate, which is why you want to focus not just on where a child is being touched, but how it makes him or her feel.
  3. Make sure your child knows that nobody should ask them to keep a secret, especially a secret about a touch. If anybody does ask your child to keep a secret, they should come and tell you right away.

These are difficult issues to talk about. As parents, we naturally worry about scaring our children. But these are conversations you will need to have more than once. It helps to think of them as empowering children, not scaring them.

Keep in mind that it can take a few repetitions before the messages really sink in and stick. Kids will have questions that you'll need to clarify. For example, you'll need to talk about touches from the doctor, which may be in private places and may be uncomfortable. You should reassure your child that as long as a parent is there, it's safe. But encourage your child to still speak up if something feels bad.

As children grow, their understanding of these issues and how they relate to their lives will change. Keep the conversation going, so that you can anticipate and respond to the changes.

Most importantly, you want your child to learn very clearly that he or she can and should talk to you about these issues. Because, really, it's communication and support that make the biggest difference when it comes to protecting children.

For resources and information on child sexual abuse, go to Child Welfare Information Gateway

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Claire McCarthy, M.D., a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications, is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She is an attending physician and Medical Communications Editor at Children's Hospital Boston.

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