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Parenting To Prevent Abuse

When and Where

It is important to find the right time and place to talk with children about abuse and its prevention. Sometimes parents hear a frightening report on the news and fueled by their own fear, put on their most serious faces and call a meeting with their children. While this method isn't always harmful, it isn't the best way to help children learn abuse prevention strategies.

Talking about abuse prevention can be incorporated into everyday life situations. Educators call these "teachable moments." Parents can begin short and promising discussions with their children by using cartoons and other children's television programs to talk about abuse. When a character is hit in a cartoon or a child is hurt on another program, parents can discuss what happened during the commercial. Point out to children that hitting isn't right, that children have a right to be safe and not to be hurt by adults or others. This is the first lesson children must learn.

Bully situations at school or in the neighborhood, or stories children read also present opportunities to discuss prevention. As children grow, they begin to take on independent activities which provide moments to reinforce safety skills. When a child is old enough to ride a bike or walk to a library alone, he or she gives the parent a perfect opportunity to review abuse prevention strategies.

Finding The Words

Parents may also be concerned that they have to use big and frightening words to discuss safety skills. Actually the opposite is true. Words should be chosen for their "low fear quotient." For example, talking about "safe and unsafe touching" instead of rape or sexual abuse is more comfortable, and it encompasses a range of abusive actions versus just one.

Before beginning a discussion with children, parents should sit down and talk together. It's important to reach an agreement about what language will be used. In two-parent families, consistency can eliminate confusion.

Parents need to become comfortable with anatomically correct language. If children sense their parents are uncomfortable with words like penis, vulva, buttocks, and anus, then children won't use these words either. Unfortunately, children may need to use these words in order to describe abuse. Many abused children report that they didn't tell their parents because they didn't have words for what happened.

The Focus

The best way to increase confidence and reduce fear is to focus the conversation on what a child can do if faced with a dangerous or uncomfortable situation. Parents can approach abuse prevention safety skills just like they approach street-crossing safety. In street-crossing, the lesson is on the safe behavior the child is learning, not on what the car will do.

Applying this logic to abuse prevention is easy. Unfortunately, many adults tell children all about bad strangers and the terrible things that could happen. The child remembers how frightening strangers can be and does not remember the prevention lesson as clearly. Remember, to focus on the skills the child is learning and what he or she can do. 

Self Confidence

Self-confidence plays a big role in our ability to do anything. If we believe we can do something (skate, bake a fancy desert, balance our checkbook, become a leader in our church or synagogue) then we are on our way to success. The opposite if also true. When we believe we can't do something then we often don't even try.

Children, like adults, must believe in their own abilities in order to succeed. Parents can help build this necessary self-esteem in a variety of ways.

After a conversation about safety, tell your children that you know that he or she will remember safety skills at home, in the neighborhood, and at school. Let your children know through hugging, pride in your voice, and actual words, that you believe in them and their abilities. 


Effective safety skills don't happen over night. Skills and information learned must be reviewed. Children, like adults, need "refreshers." Review safety skills before your child goes on independent activities. In this way, information will be fresh for the child in case he or she needs to use it. 

Children learn and retain information differently based on their ages and developmental stages. Parents need to continue abuse prevention information throughout childrearing, from preschool up to and including high school.

Prevention Skills

All children should have a variety of options available to them if faced with a threatening situation. The following list should be reviewed by parents and then, when the opportunity arises, discussed with each child.

  1. Run Away From Danger. Run to school, to a neighbor's, to a store, or home. Run to the nearest safe place. (Parents should help children determine all safe locations along regular routes each child travels.)

  2. Yell Loudly And Don't Stop Yelling Until You're Safe. This strategy requires practice since children learn that yelling is not okay most of the time. In order to use a yell in a dangerous situation, adults and children alike must practice. Time for practicing yells should be arranged and practiced in the basement or with doors closed so as not to scare anyone. When practicing with small children start out softly and get progressively louder. Young children can be startled and frightened more easily.

  3. Define Safe And Unsafe Secrets. Surprise parties and gifts are safe secrets, they don't make a child feel afraid. Safe secrets eventually are told to someone. Unsafe secrets often make children feel scared and uncomfortable. Unsafe secrets always should be shared with an adult who will help. 

  4. Brainstorm The Names Of Safe Adults With Your Child. Safe adults are adults who will listen, believe the child, and will help. Remember that children need more then mom and dad. Teachers, Grandma or Grandpa, a friend's mom, a neighbor; all of these people might be safe adults to your child.

  5. Give Your Children Permission To Say "No". Many children believe that saying "no" to an adult is wrong and that they will be punished. However, children need to understand and be given permission to say "no" to any adult who frightens them with requests or demands. We encourage our children to say "no" to drugs, and we need to support them in saying "no" to adults who may exploit them.

  6. Your Body Is Your Own; You Have My Permission And You Have My Help To Take Care Of It.
    No one has the right to touch you ina way that makes you feel uncomfortable or frightened.  No matter who it is, you can come to me and we will talk about it.    

  7. Whenever You Have A Problem, No Matter How Scary Or Embarrassing, I Will Listen, Believe You, And Help. This is perhaps one of the most important since children often think that no one will believe them. They also believe that they will get in trouble, or that they will get the person who is hurting them in trouble. Parents need to let their children know that they want to protect them from harm.


We hear a lot about bad touching. The newspapers are filled with stories of sexual abuse. Many parents, especially dads, worry about touching their children for fear it will be misinterpreted. Stop worrying! All of us need to be touched. Physical affection helps us feel love. Hugging and kissing, in non-sexual ways is important to their development. Hug you children often - they like to feel close to you. Remind your children that safe touches like these never have to be kept secret.


Spanking children is controversial. Many professionals say never spank, while others affirm spanking as a parenting tool. Certainly not all spanking is child abuse, but if it leaves a mark on a child's body or if the child is harmed in any way, then it is abuse. Many child protective service agencies define spanking or hitting a child with anything other then an open hand as abusive. 

As a society we are learning more and more about good parenting techniques. Clearly spanking isn't one of them. We expect children to use their words rather then their fists when they are mad or upset, but we do not set the same example. Spanking can send the wrong messages to children who are learning to handle their feelings and need good role models.

"Stranger Danger"

When you grew up, your mom or dad probably told you not to take candy from strangers, and that was the end of the abuse prevention lesson. Today the research clearly tells us that the great majority of children, perhaps 85% of them, are abused by adults they know and trust. Often these adults are family members, youth group leaders, or other adults who can develop relationships with children over time.

Many prevention programs require children to identify a "bad stranger", putting the responsibility for safety squarely on the shoulders of the children.  CAP gives children strategies to use with all strangers, so the role of distinguishing between safe and unsafe strangers does not fall to the child.  

Children need adults to tell them that abuse from anyone, no matter who, is an unsafe secret. Children need to know that sometimes, not often, an adult the family knows and trusts, might try to touch a child's body inappropriately. Children's bodies are their own and they must have the right to determine how their bodies can be treated. Children need to know it is never right for an adult to touch their bodies in a secret way. This information will help to prepare children for body safety throughout their growth and development. 

Age-Appropriate Information

At different ages children need different information. Elementary school age children need information about independent activities. Preschoolers don't, since they should always be supervised. Teens need information about dating safety, while elementary school children do not. It is important for parents to use and add appropriate information which is based on the age and independence of the child or teen.

Safe, Strong, and Free

All parents want their children to grow up feeling Safe, Strong, and Free. Parenting is a difficult task. It takes practice. Communication is the most important ally parents have to ensure their children's safety. Listening to children and talking honestly with them is a good foundation for practicing prevention skills. All of us have the right to grow up free from abuse.

If you want more information about abuse prevention and your children, please contact your local librarian. There are many available books on the subject matter geared specifically to parents.

Information contained on this page is reproduced from the International Center for Assault Prevention, with permission. Reproduction herein of this information is for the information and convenience of the public, and does not constitute endorsement or adoption by the State of New Jersey, or its officers, employees or agents.

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