Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse
By Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW

Some people hear the words “summer camp” and think of long sunny days filled with crafty activities, swimming and friendship. Others hear those words and think, sexual abuse. It’s not a fun topic, but it’s one all parents should be aware of and educated about. Local sex therapist and sexuality educator, Jennifer Wiessner, LCSW teaches workshops for parents and educators about sexually healthy children and has led professional development offerings on healthy sexuality for summer camps in Maine. You can ask your child’s camp if they have trained their staff in this important area, but that’s not the only thing you can do to prevent sexual abuse.  Here are some additional tips for parents in this area:

1. Empower children to think for and check in with themselves. Ask them often, “How do you feel?” and “What do you think?” Help them identify when they feel nervous and get a “funny feeling” in their tummy. If your little ones believe that you trust them and will listen, they will be more likely to come to you if they are ever in a situation that feels uncomfortable.

2. Teach the proper names for body parts and functions. Yes, all the body parts! Get support and practice beforehand if needed. The best approach to body and sex education is not a one time “talk.” Aim for early, frequent and developmentally appropriate discussions over time about bodies (and what they do), gender, consent, sex, relationships and sexuality.

3. Set firm boundaries—yours and theirs. Pay attention to when you need to say “no,” and make space for children to say it, too. Encourage body autonomy and consent by not requiring them to hug or kiss anyone they do not wish to hug and kiss (yes, even grandparents). Let them give a wave or a high-five if they choose. This lays the groundwork for a good understanding of consent as they grow into teens and adults.

4. Be mindful of the messages you are sending. Do not prep children with these types of directives when you drop them off to others: “Be good,” or “Do what you’re told.” Praising compliance is a slippery slope. Maybe encourage your children to: “Have fun, trust yourself, and make good choices,” instead. Well-behaved, obedient, passive kids are often the ones targeted with grooming, boundary-pushing and even abuse.
5. Stop using punishment as your go-to parenting approach. Punishment creates an us vs. them dynamic that can erode connection with your child. Positive parenting approaches that include realistic expectations, good communication and collaborative problem-solving are healthier. Punishment’s main motivator is fear, and fear of you is not preferred when you have a child faced with a problem as big as inappropriate sexual behavior from an adult in their life—most likely one you know and trust. (The US Department of Health and Human Services’ 2010 report on Child Maltreatment stated that 97.2% of abused children are abused by someone they know).

6. Grow your own emotional resilience and competence. When we indicate to our kids that certain things are unspeakable, that we can’t manage strong feelings or that we would “never get over it” if X happened, we send a scary message. We convey emotional fragility and our kids will hide information to protect us from what they believe we can’t handle. Having emotional resilience and competence does not mean repressing our feelings. It means owning and feeling them. This shows our kids that we will help them with any problem they may face—even our worst fears. Then your children will know they can come to you, no matter what.


Jennifer Wiessner, LCSW, CST:

Lauren’s Kids Foundation:

Amaze Jr. (videos for children 4-9 years-old):

It’s My Body by Lory Britain

C is for Consent by Eleanor Morrison

Let’s Talk About Body Boundaries, Consent & Respect by Jayneen Sanders and Sarah Jennings

Sarah MacLaughlin is a writer, social worker, and child development nerd. She helps parents (and others who interact with children) show up authentically and model great communication skills and emotional intelligence. Because it’s the good news AND the bad news that the kids are always watching us. Sarah is author of the award-winning, bestselling book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children, and is currently writing her second book, Raising Humans With Heart: Not a How-To Manual. She lives in Windham with her husband and tweenaged son who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice. Learn more about her work at