Protecting kids from sexual abuse

When I first started teaching parents how to talk kids about sex, we discussed the difference between “playing doctor” and sexual abuse. Today’s kids spend so much more time in supervised, structured environments or glued to screens, that the problem of kids exploring their private parts with the neighbors, has reduced. With the recent reports of Josh Duggar, of 19 Kids and Counting fame, sexually abusing his sisters when he was 14, it seems a good time to bring up the topic.

Kids are naturally curious about their bodies, the opposite sex, puberty changes and sexuality. It is normal for kids to engage in “sex play” games with each other as a way to explore, understand and engage their curiosity. Although it can be shocking to a parent when they discover kids naked in a closet together, if the kids are similarly aged and seem giggly, curious & happy, it isn’t cause for alarm. It’s considered normal for kids to engage in the activities of “showing, undressing, and playing doctor” and after parental discussion, the behavior stops. If you catch your kids engaging in these activities, set some boundaries with them. For example, “From now on, clothes remain on at all times. You may only play in main living spaces, not bedrooms and no closed doors.”

When Josh Duggar was a 14-year-old minor, he admits to molesting his sisters and a family friend, who, at the time, were 9-10 years old. When the age difference between kids is more than three years apart, parents need to be very careful. If you catch your kids engaging in sex play and one of the kids seems fearful, withdrawn, angry or aggressive, it’s problematic behavior. Obviously, if the activity involves private areas of the mouth, genitals, or anus, or involves penetration of any kind, it’s abuse. If you catch the kids engaging in the more innocent sex play, have a talk with them and set clear boundaries. If they ignore you and do it again, it’s a problem that needs addressing and you can get help at

When something like this happens, it is really tempting to NOT want to believe it. Denial is so easy when something this incredulous happens to our kids. Please believe any child who confides in you. They may use words like “weird” “strange” “uh-oh” “funny” “gross” “icky”. I commend Michelle Duggar (The Mom of 19 Kids and Counting) for doing just that. As hard as it must have been for her to admit that her conservatively raised, first-born son, could have made such a bad decision, she believed her daughters and dealt with the situation head on.

Five ways to protect your child from sexual abuse:

  1. Teach them what the word inappropriate means from a very young age. Whether it’s Daddy’s TV show, the pop-up ad on the computer, or the neighbor’s behavior, kids need language that makes us pick our heads up and listen.
  2. Teach kids about their instincts. They’ve got this built in safety mechanism that will steer them towards safety. Their wariness around strangers is their instincts saying “I don’t know you”. Their hesitation to undress for the doctor is their instincts saying “This is wrong”. The way they avoid aggressive kids on the playground, is their instincts kicking in. Point it out to them when you see it. Teach your kids to honor & respect their instincts before you explain why sometimes it’s ok to ignore them.
  3. Teach them the proper names for the private parts. Language is power.
  4. Teach them their body belongs to them. They get to decide who touches it, when, where and how. Then back-up your words with your actions. Don’t make him kiss grandma if he doesn’t want to. Make big brother stop tickling when sister says “Stop”.
  5. Teach them if someone says “Don’t tell your Mom” it means “Go tell your Mom”. Let them know they can always tell you if someone makes them feel bad or weird or makes them think, “Uh-oh”. If their instincts are sending them a warning, say no, get away, then go tell someone.