Teaching Your Kids This “Rude” Behavior May Help Prevent Sexual Abuse

This article was originally published in 2015.

My kids have reached an age that necessitates difficult conversations about how not every touch from an adult or a “friend” is always innocent. They don’t understand how someone with unkind intentions could approach with a smile and a kiss, and that it only takes one moment for physical affection to cross the line into impropriety.

It is because they can’t wrap their minds around it that I have to teach them the difference between “safe” and “unsafe”. I have to teach them to trust their gut when they feel something they can’t put into words – and I have to be willing to trust it, too.

And that means no matter who you are, my kids don’t have to give you a hug or kiss if they don’t want to. 

We expect our children to behave well and put on a happy face, because we only see Great Aunt Mildred once a year. Cousins and siblings bring home new boyfriends/girlfriends from college – old family friends drop by. We want our loved ones to have a good impression of us and the job we’re going as parents. But for kids, a steady stream of new or unfamiliar faces can be intimidating! Children should not be forced to give or receive physical affection if they are not comfortable with it. What’s at stake is so much more serious than being labeled “rude” or Aunt Mildred’s hurt feelings over being rejected by a 2-year-old.

Why? Because 90% of children who are victims of sexual abuse know their abuser.*

Sadly, 30% of abusers are family members – unless the child is under the age of six. Then that number jumps to 50%. For those same children under the age of six, 43% of their abusers are juveniles – older, more powerful children. And 84% of abuse incidents take place in a residence – most typically that of the child or the abuser. 

While female children are more likely to be victimized (1 in 5) than boys (1 in 20), it happens to both sexes.** (Abuse is very difficult to measure accurately & different agencies report different number. The sources for statistics used in this post are noted at the bottom of the page.)

In my own life, I recall more than one hug from a family friend or co-worker of my parents that pulled me in too close and lasted too long. I learned to push back, but always with a smile. As a college student I once declined, as politely as I could, a dinner invitation from my boss – a man 5 years older than myself. A few weeks later, when we were the only two left in the store one evening, he cornered me in the stock room and tried to kiss me, because he “could tell [I] hadn’t really meant ‘no'”. I pushed past him, grabbed my keys, and ran out.

I certainly don’t consider my own experiences “abuse”, but as an adult I now see a flaw in the way I was processing other people’s actions:

Why did I feel like I was the one at fault? Why was I afraid my actions had been “rude”?

Boys and girls alike need to know they have control over who touches them and how. They need to know they don’t have to give or receive physical affection in order to spare someone’s feelings or maintain an air of “politeness”. And it’s not because Great Aunt Mildred may secretly be a sexual predator!

If they feel the pressure to smile, “be polite”, and allow themselves to be hugged and kissed when their parents are there watching, they will most certainly feel that pressure when their parents are not present.

Being polite and obedient are good things – but there is a line that many children are forced to cross in the name of “being a good girl/boy”. We must protect our children from those who seek to take advantage of them – and we must teach our children that physical contact is not the ONLY way to show love. 

This feels overwhelming. Where do I start?

  • Talking about “private parts” and who is allowed to touch them under certain circumstances (mom & dad when bathing, perhaps their doctor if there is a health concern, etc.) is good. Teaching kids to use proper anatomical language is better – it helps to remove the shame from sexuality and their bodies. There is also evidence that it deters potential abusers, who prefer to use words like “cupcake” or “flower” to make their behavior seem more innocent than it is.
  • The “Bathing Suit Rule” (no one can touch the areas covered by your bathing suit) is good. Teaching kids “Safe” vs. “Unsafe” is better. The mouth, thighs, and hands are not covered by the bathing suit and can be used in a number of inappropriate ways – try to keep in mind that an abuser will justify and use technicalities to confuse a child.
  • Giving them guidelines is good. Leading by example is better. Teaching our kids that their “no” has a right to be heard is important – but we must teach them to honor someone else’s “no”, too! When we are playing, tickling or snuggling and one of my kids asks to stop, we stop immediately. Not only does this model for them how to respond to a request, but it teaches them the way someone else should react when they ask not to be touched. Predators will not groom kids who speak up and are quick to sound the alarm – make sure your kids know YOU WILL LISTEN.

And when in front of your entire extended family, little Johnny refuses to give sweet Aunt Mildred a hug or kiss? Stay calm. Reaffirm for your child in front of others that their choice is OK and that they have the right to have their “no” be heard. Don’t allow them to be shamed or guilted into acquiescing – keep the Big Picture in mind. Then offer an alternative:

  • My 2-year-old likes to wave, give high fives or a “thumbs up”
  • My 5-year-old enjoys blowing kisses, a curtsy, or singing special (original) songs
  • They can say “I love you” if they want, or they can come up with their own verbal affirmation
  • Allow them to do nothing, offer your own hugs, and be on your way
*Statistics cited via D2L.org
* Statistics cited via The National Center for Victims of Crime

For more resources on starting difficult conversations with your kids, click here.

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Erin is a marketing consultant in Wichita KS. She spends her days helping local businesses and non-profits navigate the ever-changing waters of digital marketing and homeschooling her kids. She and her daughter also own Sassy Squid Ink, an imprint designing notebooks, journals, and sketchbooks. Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of 2, Erin's hobbies include bribing herself to exercise, traveling with (and without) her family, and trying to remember where she hid the chocolate.


  1. An abuse seminar I went to suggested that instead of when and how discussions about private parts that you simply tell them to always tell you if someone touched / tried to touch them there. Then they don’t have to decide which situation is good touch / bad touch. I thought it was a great, unambiguous rule.

  2. Thank you Erin for this important article! I am a childcare provider and at an all day inservice on the topic of preventing child sexual abuse I learned to teach children to say “stop, I don’t like that” when they don’t like what’s happening to them. It teaches them assertiveness which I think is very important. Another very important thing I learned, is if, God forbid, a child does tell you about an inappropriate touch, etc., to NOT freak out. Calmly say to the child, “tell me more about this.” Keep asking them questions about what happened until you can determine what happened and the next step to be taken.

  3. Another response to “aunt Mildred” being offended would be to say. “we’re learning about physical boundaries… I feel it’s important to reinforce that it’s okay for them to express when they don’t want to be touched.” explain what you’re doing and don’t offer apologies for something that will help keep your children safe

  4. I found an excellent dvd series for ages 2-5 that teaches about this topic called “Bailey Bee Believes”. It has a parent dvd and a child dvd.

  5. As someone who was constantly told “He’s just playing” about an uncle who tickled me inappropriately, and who went on to molest several of my cousins, thank you! I get fussed at sometimes because I won’t make my son hug people he doesn’t like, but I respect his right to decide who touches him. And I really got fussed at for “making a scene” when one of his uncles decided J not wanting to hug him was funny and would constantly try to “catch” him. But I want him to learn to listen to his instincts

  6. I read about this topic a lot and I am very open with my children about it. However, every article I’ve read states that mom, dad and Doctor are ok and that really bugs me. Mom and dad don’t need to touch except to change diapers and help wipe and I make that very clear to my kids as well. And we have several Doctor friends, as I’m sure lots of others do, so I tell them the doctor has to check certain things but ONLY if mommy or daddy are there. I don’t want them to get confused in case a Dr “friend” tries to make them feel more relaxed by using the Dr status in a bad situation. Cuz ya never know.

  7. I not only agree, I also refuse to allow my children to be tickled. While it may seem innocent to the adult, I have NEVER met a person that enjoyed being held down and tickled. As a matter of fact, with me, you are in the most danger of bleeding when I break your nose if you try to tickle me. Imagine being a child, being held down by someone so much bigger and being forced to participate. NO, NO, NO. Since they were able to talk, my children have been taught “if you tickle me, you will make my mommy very, very angry” I don’t care if they just say no, but it can be difficult to tell adults no, especially with tickling. Which is why I give them the very true statement, my mom will be angry. An angry mommy should strike terror in even the most hardcore tickler.

  8. another point is…always take them seriously when they tell you something that concerns them. I remember very well telling my Mom when a cousin pushed up against me and fondled me–and my Mom said “oh, I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it–just hush!” I knew better. I knew that it did mean something and I was confused by her response. Evidently….I was the one who was wrong– I stomped his toe and got away from him…..but it took me years to work through this. Kids don’t always know the right words….but listen to them. Take it seriously. The gut reaction may be to downplay it so that the child is not traumatized. Trust me–the child is traumatized. Face it–even if you don’t want to because it is family member. Face it.

  9. I did this with my kids as well. They are 17 and 19 now. I am a survivor of child sexual abuse at the hands of many different abusers…adults and older kids. It never leaves you. Empowering our children from the beginning to say, and hear, “No” is an important step toward building lasting, healthy boundaries. Thanks for your post!! 🙂

  10. A note from a mother of a sexually abused child: IF your child doesn’t look like these children it is POSSIBLE they have a dark secret and are terrified to speak about it because YOU wouldn’t believe that the NICE person is even capable of those things…denial=depression for the victim, you may as well now that if you don’t step up and put your abused child’s needs first that they will have a emotional prison term for the rest of their life. Jori Nunes Author; ‘Chocolate Flowers’ childhood sexual abuse prevention/education.

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