Parents are unsure how, when to discuss sexual abuse


Childhood should be an innocent time, but sexual abuse is an unfortunate reality for many children. A new poll shows that parents may not be discussing the subject for a number of reasons.

Many like to imagine that childhood is an innocent time filled with school, friends, and play. However, the reality may include harsh truths such as inappropriate touching or sexual abuse. A new poll from the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor examined how parents talk to their child about inappropriate touching.1 The investigators spoke to 1106 parents who had a child aged 2 to 9 years about their experiences with discussing the subject.

When asked when the conversation should occur, 60% of parents said it should happen when the child was preschool age, around age 2 to 4 years, and 33% stated that they believed it was more appropriate to discuss when the child was aged 5 to 9 years. The remaining parents thought it was best to wait until the child was aged 10 years.

The sources of information on how to discuss the topic were friends and family for 32% of parents, a health care provider for 24%, and parenting books and magazines for 20%. Educational institutions, social media, children’s books, and religious places served as other information sources. However, 41% of parents indicated that they had no information source on how to talk to their child about inappropriate touching. A majority of parents said that schools should teach children about the subject and 76% responded that schools should provide information at the very least.

Just 44% of parents of preschool-aged children said they had discussed the subject with their child, in comparison with 77% of parents of children aged 5 to 9 years. Even for discussing inappropriate touching, only 11% of parents of preschool-aged children and 47% of parents of children aged 5 to 9 years thought that their child could distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate touching. Parents who had broached the topic responded that their child was more likely to know the difference than parents who had not discussed it.

Why aren’t parents talking?

If parents had not discussed the topic with their children, they were asked why they had not done so. Among parents of preschool-aged children, 71% said that their child was too young and 20% had not gotten around to doing it yet. Parents of children aged 5 to 9 years had a wider range of reasons, including 39% who had not spoken to their child; 18% who believed sexual abuse was a rare occurrence and unnecessary to discuss; 36% who believed that their child was too young for the discussion; 21% who said they did not want to scare their child; and 18% who were unsure of how to bring up the subject.

Health care providers can help improve the situation in a variety of ways. One way is to share statistics, such as most children do not report their abuse until a year after it has occurred; that family members and friends often are the perpetrators; and that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused before reaching their 18th birthday.

Also, provide parents with information on how to bring up the subject and stress the need to discuss the subject early. Finally, encourage schools to provide educational materials. Experts say there is no such thing as “too young” when discussing sexual abuse or inappropriate touching. 


1. C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. National Poll on Children's Health: Parenting to prevent child sexual abuse. 2020;36(1). Published March 16, 2020. Accessed March 24, 2020.

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