Sexual Abuse: Establishing Family Guidelines for Safety and Privacy

This information was taken directly from Child Welfare Information Gateway

Establishing Family Guidelines for Safety and Privacy

There are things you can do to help ensure that any child visiting or living in your home experiences a structured, safe, and nurturing environment. Some children who have been sexually abused may have a heightened sensitivity to certain situations. Making your home a comfortable place for children who have been sexually abused can mean changing some habits or patterns of family life. Incorporating some of these guidelines may also help reduce foster or adoptive parents’ vulnerability to abuse allegations by children living with them. Consider whether the following tips may be helpful in your family’s situation:

Make sure every family member’s comfort level with touching, hugging, and kissing is respected. Do not force touching on children who seem uncomfortable being touched. Encourage children to respect the comfort and privacy of others.

Be cautious with playful touch, such as play fighting and tickling. These may be uncomfortable or scary reminders of sexual abuse to some children.

Help children learn the importance of privacy. Remind children to knock before entering bathrooms and bedrooms, and encourage children to dress and bathe themselves if they are able. Teach children about privacy and respect by modeling this behavior and talking about it openly.

Keep adult sexuality private. Teenage siblings may need reminders about what is permitted in your home when boyfriends and girlfriends are present. Adult caretakers will also need to pay special attention to intimacy and sexuality when young children with a history of sexual abuse are underfoot.

Be aware of and limit sexual messages received through the media. Children who have experienced sexual abuse can find sexual content overstimulating or disturbing. It may be helpful to monitor music and music videos, as well as television programs, video games, and movies containing nudity, sexual activity, or sexual language. Limit access to grownup magazines and monitor children’s Internet use. In addition, limit violent graphic or moving images in TV or video games.

Supervise and monitor children’s play. If you know that your child has a history of sexual abuse, it will be important to supervise and monitor his or her play with siblings or other children in your home. This means having children play within your view and not allowing long periods of time when children are unsupervised. Children may have learned about sexual abuse from others and may look for times to explore these activities with other children if left unsupervised. It will be important for parents and caretakers to be cautious but avoid feeling paranoid.

Prepare and develop comfort with language about sexual boundaries. It will be important for you to be proactive in developing and practicing responses to children who exhibit sexual behavior problems. Many parents feel uncomfortable addressing the subject so they ignore or avoid direct discussions. For example, some parents are able to say, “Your private parts belong to you, and it’s okay to touch them in private.” Some parents hesitate to give this kind of permission, believing it’s sinful behavior. In those cases, you might want to deliver different messages. When children have been abused, you can say, “Just like it was not okay for so-and-so to touch your private parts, it’s not okay for you to touch other people’s private parts.” You might also give clear directives, “We don’t use that language in this house,” if it’s offensive, or “I’d like you to use different words so that we can really hear what you’re saying.” Because there are so many differences in the messages parents want to convey to their children, it is useful to prepare ahead and be proactive.

If your child has touching problems (or any sexually aggressive behaviors), you may need to take additional steps to help ensure safety for your child as well as his or her peers. Consider how these tips may apply to your own situation:

With friends. If your child has known issues with touching other children, you will need to ensure supervision when he or she is playing with friends, whether at your home or theirs. Sleepovers may not be a good idea when children have touching problems.

At school. You may wish to inform your child’s school of any inappropriate sexual behavior, to ensure an appropriate level of supervision. Often this information can be kept confidential by a school counselor or other personnel.

In the community. Supervision becomes critical any time children with sexual behavior problems are with groups of children, for example, at day camp or afterschool programs.

Keep the lines of communication open, so children feel more comfortable turning to you with problems and talking with you about anything—not just sexual abuse. Remember, however, that sexual abuse is difficult for most children to disclose even to a trusted adult and that, ordinarily, children do not volunteer information about their sexual development.

For more information about developing a safety plan for your family, see: Create a Family Safety Plan Stop It Now!

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Child Welfare Information Gateway would like to acknowledge the contributions of Eliana Gil, Ph.D., Gil Institute for Trauma Recovery and Education, LLC, in Fairfax, VA, and a nationally known lecturer, author, and clinician specializing in working with children and families in which child sexual abuse has occurred as well as children with sexual behavior problems and their families. This is an update to an original publication written in partnership with Susan A. Rich, Ph.D.


Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2013). Parenting a child who has been sexually abused: A guide for foster and adoptive parents. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.