Preventing Abuse: An Age-By-Age Guide
Depending on your child's developmental stage, you'll need to focus on specific issues and address (or avoid) certain topics.
Ages 2-4 Use the right language. "Skip the euphemisms," says Robin Sax. "Call a vagina a vagina and a penis a penis." This decreases potential confusion and improves your child's ability to discuss sexual situations.
Explain what's private. Tell her that besides herself, her parents, and her doctor (and caregiver if your child's still in diapers), no one should touch her private parts. If anyone does, she can tell you and you won't be mad.
Give him ownership of his body. Has a stranger ever ruffled your child's hair, telling you how cute he is? Your tendency may be to politely tolerate the behavior. But it's a great teachable moment. Saying "I don't feel comfortable having someone we don't know touching my kids" models to your child that it's okay to say "no" to touch—even from outwardly "nice" people.
Be a safe refuge. You may think this is obvious to your child, but explicitly state that she can tell you if she ever feels confused or scared about anything and that you'll help and love her no matter what has happened.
Break the taboo around sexuality. If your 4-year-old asks where babies come from, for instance, give her a brief, honest, and age-appropriate answer. "If we tell a child she's not old enough to know, or to not ask such questions, then we've given the message that this subject is off-limits," says Robin Castle.
Ages 5-8 Reinforce boundaries. Support your child if he wants to say "No, thank you" to hugs or kisses from relatives. If your son is squirming away as Grandma leans in give him a kiss, you can say, "Vincent isn't really in the mood for a kiss right now, and that's okay, isn't it, Grandma?" suggests Linda E. Johnson.
Head off guilty feelings. Don't wait until you suspect something is wrong. "Kids need to hear that it is never their fault if someone behaves sexually with them and that they can always come to you," says Jolie Logan, CEO of Darkness to Light. In doing so, you help take away the perpetrator's most powerful weapons—shame and fear. Bathtime is one opportunity to talk about bodies and boundaries, says Logan ("I want you to understand that people shouldn't touch your private parts, or ask you to touch theirs"). Or use current events: "There are grown-ups who like to do inappropriate things with children, and it's my job as a parent to keep you safe. You can always come to me if you feel uncomfortable."
Teach Internet safety. Many experts consider kids this age too young to be online by themselves. Use parental controls to limit her access, and explain that people are not always who they claim to be online. Insist your child never disclose personal information, and ask her to tell you if she ever feels uncomfortable about messages she receives.
Ages 9 and up Continue the conversation. As children near adolescence, their peers could sexually threaten them. Indeed, your child's own budding sexuality may get him into situations that offenders may readily take advantage of. Look for chances to talk about this; it can include brainstorming ways for your child to avoid or get out of uncomfortable situations with peers. Reinforce that it is never a child's fault when someone mistreats her.
Monitor devices. Kids can easily, and often accidentally, access porn through smartphones and gaming systems such as Nintendo Wii and Sony PSP that can be connected to the Internet. "We're seeing a record- high number of these cases in our practice," says Dr. Julie Medlin. "Most parents have no idea that their kids can access porn so easily in this way, nor do they understand just how much of a negative impact such exposure can have on the child's sexuality." Consult your device's user guide to enable parental controls and limit access to certain games with mature content and to manage Web browsing, chat features, and purchases.
Help identify trusted adults. Many children cannot bring themselves to disclose sexual abuse directly to parents, Sax says. So she encourages teaching kids to seek out adults whom they feel comfortable turning to when something is bothering them. She adds that they should continue to tell until someone acts on the issue. By law, teachers and school counselors must report suspected abuse to authorities, and in 18 states (and Puerto Rico), all adults who suspect abuse are required to report.