Topics and conversation starters to help you talk to preschool-age children about child sexual abuse, created in partnership with Raising Children Network.
Content has been adapted from raisingchildren.net.au with permission.
You can talk to children about sexual abuse as part of conversations about bodies, relationships, respect, consent and online safety. It’s important to talk about saying no, physical warning signs, inappropriate touch, and secrets and surprises.
The information below provides guidance for adults having conversations with children about child sexual abuse. The content has been developed for talking with children aged 0 to 5 years. We encourage adults to use their judgement to determine what’s the most age- and developmentally-appropriate content for the child they’re speaking to.
Feeling unsafe: helping children recognise physical warning signs
Children’s bodies give them warning signs when something is wrong or they don’t feel safe. These signs can happen in many unsafe situations. If children can recognise the signs in any unsafe situation, they should be able to recognise the signs in a sexually unsafe situation too.
You can protect children from sexual abuse by helping them recognise and use words for these warning signs.
For example, you might say, ‘When you feel unsafe you might feel yucky or funny in the tummy, your heart might beat fast, or your body might feel hot, shaky or wobbly’.
Feeling unsafe: what to do
It’s OK and important for children to act on these warning signs.
For example, you could say, ‘If you’re with someone and have these feelings, it’s OK to go somewhere else and be with someone else so you feel safe. It’s also important to tell me about how you felt, so I can help you stay safe’.
It’s important to talk with children about who to go to when they feel unsafe. Together you can identify trusted family and friends or police and educators. Remind children that if someone doesn’t believe them, it’s important to keep telling people until someone listens and helps them feel safe.
Safe and unsafe places and situations: helping children recognise them
It’s a good idea to talk with children about what makes places and situations safe or less safe.
Younger children can’t always recognise safe and unsafe places, so it’s best to talk about how different places make them feel. You could ask children:
‘Where do you feel happy and know that you’ll be safe? What does it look like? Who is there? Why does it make you feel safe?’
Surprises and unsafe secrets: helping children understand the difference
People who sexually abuse children need the abuse to be a secret. You can help children stay safe by helping them understand the difference between surprises and unsafe secrets.
Here’s how you could explain the difference:
- Surprises: ‘Surprises are good, like when Nanna tells you what she’s getting your sister for her birthday. This is a surprise for your sister. You might feel excited but not yucky about the surprise.’
- Unsafe secrets: ‘Some secrets might make you feel worried, like if a friend tells you that they’re going to take something that doesn’t belong to them. These sorts of secrets can make people feel unhappy and yucky. You need to tell me or another adult you trust. We can decide how to help you with the yucky feelings.’
Saying no: helping children stand up for themselves
It’s never a child’s responsibility to protect themselves from abuse. But learning to say no to unwanted touch or activity is an important part of children standing up for themselves and learning how to set their own boundaries.
If a child doesn’t want to be tickled, kissed or hugged by an adult or another child, it’s OK for them to say no and move away, even if the person is a family member or friend. It’s OK even if the person has been nice to the child.
It’s OK for children to say ‘No!’ if someone:
- touches them
- asks them to do something that feels unsafe, scary or confusing
- does something that makes them want to get away
- is threatening, bribing or blackmailing them
- has tricked them into an unsafe situation.
It’s also important for children to accept it when other people say no to them.
Putting it into practice
It can help to practise these situations. For example, you could get a child to practise saying no politely if they don’t like something. Or you could help them feel confident to suggest alternatives to a hug or kiss, like a wave or hi-five. Then the child could practise what to do if the behaviour doesn’t stop and they feel unsafe – for example, standing up tall and saying loudly:
‘Stop it!’, ‘No, I don’t like that!’ or ‘Stop! It’s my body, and I say what goes!’
You can also model how to behave when someone else says no. For example, if you’re tickling a child and they ask you to stop, you should stop immediately and say:
‘I’m going to stop now because you’ve asked me to and it’s important that I listen to what you say about your body.’
Inappropriate touch: helping children protect their own bodies
Children need to know that their body is their own. When children understand this, they can also understand that it’s wrong for other people to touch their body, ask to see their body, or take photos or videos of their body, particularly their genitals.
You might say, ‘Your body belongs to you. No-one can touch or see your body without a good reason. If a grown up or older child wants to touch or see your private parts or show you theirs, that’s not OK. Even if it’s someone you know, it’s still not OK. You should tell me straight away, even if they ask you to keep it a secret.’
Let children know about good reasons.
For example, ‘A doctor or nurse might ask to see your body. That’s a good reason, but only if I’m there too.’
Using correct names for body parts
Teach children what ‘private parts’ include. It’s a good idea to use correct names for the parts of their body that are considered private, like vulva, vagina, clitoris, nipples, penis, scrotum, testicles and anus. It can be embarrassing at first to use these names, but doing this means that children will have language to communicate clearly about their bodies.
Conversation starters and opening lines
It can help to talk with children about what to do in unsafe situations and practise what they’d do and say. Here are questions you can use to start a conversation:
- What would you do if an adult or another child you knew and liked did something that made you feel yucky or scared?
- What would you do if someone wanted to hug you but you didn’t want to?
- What would you do if someone you didn’t know wanted you to help them look for their dog?
- Where do you feel happy and know that you’ll be safe? What does it look like? Who is there? Why does it make you feel safe?
Other helpful resources
Raising Children Network has a range of useful resources to help adults learn more and have conversations with children:
- Child sexual abuse: what it is and what to do
- Child sexual abuse: talking to children 0-11 years
- Child sexual abuse: safeguarding children
- Signs of sexual abuse in children and teenagers
- Grooming: recognising the signs
- Child sexual abuse: what to do if children or teenagers experience it
- Child sexual abuse: supporting children or teenagers who have experienced it
- Harmful sexual behaviour: supporting children and teenagers who have engaged in it
- Circle of friends: personal boundaries activity for children 3-15 years
- Internet safety: children 2-5 years