Helping to keep your kid safe is your most important job. Here’s how to talk about online safety, bullying, and abuse.
What should I keep in mind?
As your kid starts school and joins outside clubs and activities, they’re gaining valuable formative experiences — and meeting new people along the way. Your guidance, support, and boundary-setting helps them get along in their new surroundings and stay safe.
Not all parents will set the same boundaries. Decide for yourself at what age it’s appropriate for your kid to get a phone or tablet of their own, and how much time they’re allowed to spend with it. If your kid is spending time at friends’ homes where there may be different rules, talk with your kid about what your expectations are. Get to know your kid’s friends’ parents and make sure you’re on the same page about keeping your kids safe.
Stay involved and be available to talk. Check in with your kid often about what’s going on in their lives, and listen closely. Observe their behavior and be mindful of changes. And let them know they can always come to you with any worries or problems they may have.
How do I talk about internet safety with my kids?
There are a few different ways that you can help your kid stay safe online. The first is to be aware of what they’re doing. You can do that by keeping computers, tablets, and phones in shared spaces only. You can also use parental control software and apps to limit what kinds of sites your kid has access to, including what kinds of words, pictures, and videos appear.
But keeping your kid away from inappropriate stuff isn’t all there is to it. It’s possible that they’ll accidentally come across pornographic or sexual content, or that friends may share sexual content. You can tell them that this kind of content is meant for adults, not kids. Let them know that they can ask you questions if they see anything on the internet that’s confusing or makes them uncomfortable.
Talk with your kid about the possible dangers of talking to strangers online. You may want to have your kid ask permission before talking to anyone online. Many parents tell their children they cannot talk to anyone online that they don’t know in real life. As your kid gets older, you can decide together if the rules should change.
Some other basic rules for staying safe online are:
No sharing personal info (like your address or phone number).
Never send pictures of yourself to other people online without parent permission.
Remember that anything you say or put online/in apps could be seen by anybody, anywhere (no matter what kind of privacy settings you use).
Worried that your kid knows more about new technology, apps, or social media than you do? Have them show you how things work. That’ll help you understand if it’s safe for your kid, and it can be fun for your kid to be the one teaching you about something for a change.
How do I talk about bullying with my kids?
Elementary school kids are capable of empathy and understanding that there are consequences to their actions — but they need to be guided to do the right thing. So talk with your kid about bullying — what it is, why it’s wrong, and what to do if it happens.
Help your kid understand that bullying is hurtful. Many children’s books, TV, and movies feature a bully-type character. You can use those storylines as a way to start a conversation.
You can say something like:
“What that character is doing is bullying. Has someone ever treated you that way? How did it make you feel?”
“What would you do if you saw bullying like that at school?”
Encourage them to seek help from adults like teachers or counselors, and to stand up for kids who are being bullied instead of joining in or doing nothing. Here are some things you can tell your child to do if they see someone being bullied:
Tell a grown-up
If it feels safe, tell the person bullying that what they’re doing isn’t cool and to stop
Help the person being bullied leave the space
Create a distraction
At home, you can encourage behaviors that prevent your kid from bullying.
Be a good role model. Acknowledge and stop bullying behaviors that you may participate in.
If your kid is being bullied:
Give love and support. Listen, console them, and tell them it's not their fault.
Give them tools to deal with it. They can ignore it, tell the bully to stop, or try to stay in a group.
Get the school involved. It’s often safer and more effective to work with the school than contacting the bully or their parents directly. Have notes ready (like names, dates, who saw what, etc).
What can I do to help prevent my child from being abused?
As a parent, the idea that someone would intentionally hurt your child is nothing short of a nightmare. That’s what abuse means — anything that hurts or takes advantage of a child.
The sad reality is that sexual abuse can happen to any child, and there’s no 100% foolproof way to protect them from it. But there are ways to reduce the risk and help catch abuse early.
The vast majority of childhood sexual abuse cases happen at the hands of someone both the parent and the child know, in an isolated, 1-on-1 setting. That can mean an adult relative or caregiver, or it can mean an older child or teenager in your family or community.
So it’s less important to talk about “who” is dangerous (like strangers offering you candy), and more important to talk about what’s OK and what’s not OK when it comes to people touching their body. Here are some tips:
Ask your kid to tell you if someone hurts you — or if something feels uncomfortable. Be specific and say “Tell me right away if someone makes you feel uncomfortable, and especially if they ask you to take your clothes off, kisses you, or touches you in a way you don’t like or feels wrong.”
Be clear about who’s allowed to see and touch their body. Only you (and your co-parents) if you’re helping them bathe or get dressed, and their doctor when it’s about their health (and only with parent permission) should see or touch their genitals.
Let them know that they’ll never be in trouble for telling you. People who sexually abuse young people use manipulations and threats to keep the abuse a secret. Make sure your kid knows that any touch that someone asks them to keep secret is not OK, and that they should tell you right away so you can protect them. Reassure them that they won’t be in trouble for telling you.
Know your kid’s whereabouts and who’s around, and take time to screen caregivers (babysitters, daycare centers, health care providers, and tutors). Get to know the parents of your kid’s friends. Be available to talk with your kid about their day, listen to them, and show that you trust them.
Read more from RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) about preventing child sexual abuse.
What do I do if my child was abused?
Finding out that your child has been abused can turn your world upside down. You may feel deeply upset, scared, or overwhelmed with guilt. Know that help is available, and that with time, things can get better for you and your child.
You may find out because of something your kid says, or you may notice that something’s up. Some of the warning signs of abuse are unexplained injuries, behavior changes, becoming withdrawn or upset, nightmares, bed-wetting, or symptoms of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
If you don’t see one of these signs, but something is giving you a bad feeling in your gut, listen to that feeling.
Sit down with your kid somewhere quiet and private and give them your full attention. Listen, ask open-ended questions, and trust whatever they tell you — even if it sounds crazy or involves someone you know and love. Remember, most abusers are known to the family. Remind them that you love them no matter what, and while you may get upset, they’re not in trouble. Abuse is never the fault of the victim (even if they think it’s a consensual or even loving relationship), and your kid needs to be reminded of that.
Once your kid has talked to you about what’s going on, get help. You owe it to your child and other children in your community to keep them safe from abuse — and in many places you’re required by law to report abuse.
Seek help from police, child protective services (CPS), or a children’s advocacy center as soon as you can. The Rape Abuse and Incest National Network or the Childhelp National Abuse Hotline are good starting places that can help you figure out your next steps.
Life after abuse
The healing process after abuse can be a long and difficult journey. Your kid needs you to do your best to be supportive, protective, and encouraging. Make sure your child understands that what happened is NOT their fault — nobody deserves abuse, no matter what. Remind them daily that you love them. All kids need to hear that, but especially kids who have been abused.
Child abuse — whether it means child sexual abuse, emotional or psychological abuse, or physical violence — can change people’s lives, families, and communities forever. For you as a parent, it can mean cutting ties with someone close to you and your family, or even someone within your family, which can feel almost impossible. All of this can be overwhelming, so find support for yourself. Seek help from loved ones, as well as counseling, therapy, or a support group if you can. Getting help for yourself can help you focus on being your kid’s #1 advocate during this difficult time.