Parenting tips to help prevent child sexual abuse

The Boston Globe: Excerpted from the MD Mama blog on

In the wake of the news that a known sexual offender raped and molested children for years, many of them in a day care north of Boston, it’s hard not to be scared as a parent. You can’t help thinking: Could this happen to my child?

It certainly brings home the fact that if your child is in day care you should be asking lots of questions — not just when you choose the day care, but on a regular basis. You should be sure that the day care is licensed; the Department of Early Education and Childcare has an online database and you can also call if you want more information. You should ask lots of questions about how and with whom your child spends his or her day, get references and have ongoing conversations with other parents, and be alert for anything that doesn’t seem right to you.

But there are other things that parents can do to help prevent sexual abuse — and make it more likely that you will know if something does happen:

Talk to your kids. Many parents don’t spend that much time each day talking to their children. It takes patience, and time. It takes building a culture within your family of daily sharing and listening. It’s worth the effort; not only will it make you closer as a family, but it will make it easier and more natural for your children to tell you about anything that happens to them.

Teach your child about body parts. Do it in the bathtub or at other natural times of nakedness. Teach them the actual names; it will help if a child ever needs to explain anything. Make sure they know which parts are their private parts, which nobody should look at or touch except the people you say are OK. Which leads into . . .

Talk about good and bad touches. Bad touches don’t necessarily involve touching breasts or genitals. A bad touch is one that makes a child feel uncomfortable — and those are the instincts you want to teach your child. Which leads into . . .

Teach them that no grown-up should ask them to keep a secret. So much of abuse and sexual predation begins with secrets, and as with touches, they aren’t always sexual. So teach that grown-ups shouldn’t ask children to keep secrets.

I get that these are really hard conversations to have. Don’t do it all at once. And do it with hugs and reassurances that you and all the trusted grown-ups around them are always working to keep them safe. The idea should be to empower your children, not scare them.

Be watchful, and trust your instincts. Pay attention to changes in behavior or offhand comments or things that happen that seem odd, and ask questions.

If you do these things starting when your child is small, and work to maintain ongoing conversations and support through adolescence, you will go a long way toward keeping your child safe.

Claire McCarthy, MD, is a pediatrician and medical communications editor at Boston Children’s Hospital. Read her blog at