Talking to your Elementary School Child

It can be stressful to plan a big safety talk about abuse with your kid. The good news is you don’t have to. Conversations about abuse can be a part of the safety conversations you’re already having, like knowing when to speak up, how to take care of friends, and listening to your gut. The key is to start these conversations when your kids are young and have these conversations often.

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Start the Conversation Early

Teach young children the language they need to talk about their bodies and information about boundaries to help them understand what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. These lessons help them know when something isn’t right and give them the power to speak up.

  • Teach children the names of their body parts.

    When children have the words to describe their body parts, they may find it easier to ask questions and express concerns about those body parts.

  • Some parts of the body are private.

    As a general rule, areas covered by a bathing suit are private. Let children know that other people shouldn’t touch or look at private parts. If a healthcare professional must examine these parts of the body, it’s okay, but a care giver should be present.

  • It’s OK to say “no.”

    It’s important to let children know they are allowed to say “no” to touches that make them uncomfortable. This message isn’t obvious to children, who are often taught to be obedient and follow the rules. Support your child if they say no, even if it puts you in an uncomfortable position. For example, if your child doesn't want to hug someone at a family gathering, respect their decision to say “no” to this contact. This is the beginning of a conversation about consent and bodily autonomy.

  • Talk about the difference between secrets and surprises.

    Secrets shouldn’t be kept from safe adults, although there are times that we keep surprises. For example, we bought dad a new grill for Father’s Day, don’t tell him because it’s a surprise. A surprise is something that someone will find out later, secrets are something that someone never finds out. Perpetrators will often use secret-keeping to manipulate children. Let children know they can always talk to you, especially if they’ve been told to keep a secret. If they see someone touching another child, they shouldn’t keep this secret, either.

  • Reassure them that they won’t get in trouble.

    Young children often fear getting in trouble or upsetting their parents by asking questions or talking about their experiences. Be a safe place for your child to share information about things that they have questions about or that make them uncomfortable. Remind them they won’t be punished for sharing this information with you.

  • When they come to you, make time for them.

    If your kid comes to you with something they feel is important, take the time to listen. Give them your undivided attention and let them know you take their concerns seriously. They will be more likely to come to you in the future if they know their voice will be heard.

  • Additional Subjects to Discuss
    • Talk about “safe” and “unsafe” touching rather than “good” or “bad” touching. This removes guilt from the child and keeps them from having to make a moral distinction about what is and is not appropriate.
    • Use age-appropriate wording. You can discuss body safety without discussing sexuality. Teach young children that no one should touch them in any area that their bathing suit covers, and that they should never touch anyone else in this area or see pictures or movies that show those areas.
    • Teach the difference between secrets and surprises. Secrets are things that are never told, even to trustworthy adults. Surprises are things that are told later, maybe a surprise party or surprise gift.
    • Have your child name five people that they could talk to if someone was touching them in an unsafe way. Children are often afraid to tell their parents out of fear of punishment (or because of a threat made by a perpetrator), so it’s important for your child to know they can seek out other trusted adults to confide in. Instruct your child that they should keep telling until someone helps them.
    • Teach children proper names for body parts so that if they disclose inappropriate touching, it will be clear what they are talking about.
    • Show them what it looks like to do the right thing. It could be as simple as helping an elderly person get off a bus or picking up change that someone has dropped on the ground. When you model helping behavior, it signals to your child that this is a normal, positive way to behave.
    • Revisit this safety talk often. Children learn through repetition. How many times do you remind children to look both ways before crossing the street?

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Questions That Children Often Ask

Many adults are uncomfortable about talking with children who have questions about child abuse or who, unfortunately, may be victims themselves.

Below are some possible questions children may have and some suggested language appropriate for communicating effectively with children about this sensitive subject. Its aim is to answer children’s questions in a way that they can understand without frightening or confusing them.

Don’t assume that a child will behave or react in any way. Every situation that involves child abuse is different, and every child responds differently. Simply being an available, responsible adult may provide the support a child needs. Establishing or maintaining a sense of normalcy or routine may help to reassure a child and start the healing process.

  • What is child abuse?

    Child abuse is when an adult hurts a child, and it is not an accident. Hitting, constant yelling, or unwanted touching can all be child abuse. If someone is hurting you or making you uncomfortable, ask the person to stop or leave and tell someone you trust about what happened.

    Physical abuse is when an adult hurts a child by hitting, shaking, choking, burning, pinching, beating, or any other action that causes pain or injury. If you are physically abused, you may notice cuts, bruises, or other marks on your body.

    Emotional abuse is when an adult hurts a child by always yelling at the child, threatening to leave, or saying mean things. If you are emotionally abused, you may feel like you are all alone and that no one cares about you.

    Child Sexual abuse is when someone touches the private parts of a child’s body or has a child touch the other person’s private parts. It is also sexual abuse if an adult shows a child pictures or movies of people without their clothes on or takes these types of pictures or movies of a child. If someone is sexually abusing you, you may feel uncomfortable, scared, or confused.

    Neglect is when an adult does not give the food, care, or place to live that a child needs. If you are neglected, you may not have clean clothes, a bed to sleep in, or medicine when you are sick.

  • Who abuses kids?

    Some kids are abused by strangers, but most are abused by someone they know—a parent or stepparent, another relative, a babysitter, a teacher, or another kid.

  • Why would someone abuse a kid?

    Most adults care about kids and never hurt them. It can be hard to believe that someone you love or someone who is nice can hurt you or other kids, but some adults lose their tempers or can’t control the way they act. Drinking alcohol or using drugs can also make it hard for some people to control how they act. An adult who hurts children has a problem and needs to get help to stop.

  • Is it my fault that this happened to me?

    No. No matter what, abuse is never your fault, and you don’t deserve it.

    It’s normal to feel upset, angry, and confused when someone hurts you. But don’t blame yourself or worry that others will be angry with you. Even if you think you’ve done something wrong, that does not make it okay for someone to hurt you. All kids deserve to have adults in their lives who love and support them as they grow up.

  • How can I stop it?

    If you think that you are being abused, the bravest and most important thing you can do is tell someone you trust. Never keep it a secret, even if the person hurting you tells you that something bad will happen if you tell. Trusting someone after you’ve been hurt can be hard to do. If you can’t trust anyone at home, talk to someone at school (like a teacher, counselor, or school nurse) or a friend’s mom or dad. And if that person cannot help you, keep telling until you get the help you need to feel safe.

  • What will happen to the person who hurt me if I tell?

    An adult who hurts children needs special help to learn to stop. While this person is getting help, you may see less of him or her. This may be tough for you, especially if that person is a part of your family. Your whole family may need help, too.

Mandated Reporting

You may find that the child asking questions is a victim. In North Carolina all adults are mandated reporters—you are required by law to report suspected abuse. Laws about reporting suspected child abuse vary from state to state. For more information about laws and reporting procedures outside of North Carolina, visit the Child Welfare Information Gateway Web site, hosted by the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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