Prevention – Child Sexual Abuse

Prevention - Child Sexual Abuse

How Can I Protect My Child From Sexual Assault?

Message from Laura A. Ahearn, LMSW and Executive Director of Parents for Megan’s Law and the Crime Victims Center:

Convicted sex offenders tell us that “Parents are so naïve - they’re worried about strangers and should be worried about their brother-in-law. They just don’t realize how devious we can be. Know that we will use any way we can to get to children.” The best offense is a great defense. Understand the dynamics of child sexual abuse and you and your children will be safer.

Most child sexual abuse, up to 90%, occurs with someone a child has an established and trusting relationship with, whether known or not by the parent, and who is often a person in a position of authority. Teaching your children about stranger danger is misleading and does not address the reality that most children know and trust those who abuse them.

Sexual predators are smart, extremely cunning and often individuals you least expect would commit such crimes. Sometimes they are the well-respected pillars of the community. They develop elaborate schemes and go to great extents to do anything to get access to children.

Sex offender notifications give us an opportunity to be made aware of those offenders who have been caught and convicted and to take necessary precautions such as not allowing our children to develop relationships with registrants. Do not make the mistake of believing that you and your children will be safe by focusing all of your prevention efforts on those that have been caught and convicted. This false sense of security gives sexual predators that have not been caught and convicted the opportunity to access and sexually victimize children.

I developed the Apple of My Eye Sexual Abuse Prevention Program to provide you the skills you need to help you protect your children from sexual victimization. The full program is available in our book, Megan’s Law Nationwide and the Apple of My Eye Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Program, which can be purchased for a donation at the online store.

Apple of My Eye identifies 10 Parent Prevention Tips, 27 Tricks Sexual Predators Use To Access Children and 11 Red Flags To Watch Out For. It also provides children 10 Rules for Safety to help prevent sexual abuse and abduction.

How Can I Protect My Child?

Know . . .

  • That Most Sexual Abuse Starts With The Violation of A Boundary
  • How To Trust Everyone But Define Their Role
  • The 27 Tricks Sexual Predators Use To Access Potential Victims
  • The Red Flags To Identify A Potential Problem
  • The 10 Rules For Safety For Children and Teens
  • The Behavioral and Physical Signs of Sexual Abuse
  • What Sexual Predators Count On
  • How To Protect Children and Teens Online
  • How To Protect Children and Teens Who Play Video Games and Game Online (link)

Know That Most Sexual Abuse Starts With a Violation of a Boundary.

Although most high-profile cases deal with stranger abduction and molestation, most child sexual abuse happens with those whom a child has an established and trusting relationship with. If you want to prevent this abuse, you have to focus your prevention efforts on clearly defining the roles and responsibilities of those who are in relationships with children. You have the power to protect your child from sexual predators, and you must know that Megan’s Law is not the only answer. Your long-term commitment to changing certain parenting practices will significantly reduce the potential of your child falling prey to a sexual predator.

I could make it easy for you and tell you to only teach your children our ten rules for safety, but those rules, like most prevention programs, fall short of teaching children skills to ward off sexual abuse attempts made by those with whom children are in established and trusting relationships.

Sexual abuse starts with a violation of a boundary. A boundary is a physical or emotional limit that is placed on an individual in a relationship. You will have to learn how to identify limits and boundaries in your relationships and in relationships you define for your child. The undefined limitless relationship has blurry boundaries and offers predators an opportunity to exploit.


Some parents get to this point in the prevention process and throw their hands up in frustration because they feel that they cannot trust anyone, but I am telling them to trust everyone. That doesn’t make sense right? Let’s put it another way:

Trust everyone with your child, but trust them only within the limits and boundaries of the responsibilities you have defined in the role they play in your child’s life.


Your child has many people in their life that have certain roles.


Each person in their role has certain responsibilities that you need to clearly define and articulate to your child.


The limit of responsibility you set within each role is called a boundary. It is the limit you set when you define the many different roles people are assuming in your child’s life. Let’s explore this concept further using the following figures while defining the role of a baseball coach.

Your 7-year-old child plays baseball. You can define the role of the coach by first evaluating the responsibilities within the role he assumes in your child’s life. He teaches your child how to field the ball, how to bat, how to throw and how to be a good sport. The baseball coach should not be picking up and dropping off your child alone for baseball practice because it blurs the boundary.

Figure 1. shows healthy boundaries between a child and a baseball coach. The baseball coach honors the boundaries within his role by being mindful only of his responsibilities as a baseball coach.

If your child’s coach is asking to pick up and drop off your child alone after practice, then he is violating a boundary and you must defend it by saying “no.”& #160;If you allow him to assume the responsibilities within your role as a parent by providing transportation to your child then the boundary becomes blurred as Figure 2. shows

Sexual abuse typically begins with a violation of some sort of boundary, so if you begin defining the roles early on in your child’s life, they will know immediately if someone tries to violate the boundaries you have helped them to identify.

Teaching your children to trust everyone within the defined role requires an intense commitment on your part because you will need to clearly and continually define and update the responsibilities for all of the roles people play in their life.

Define and articulate to your child the roles people play in their life and the boundaries associated with those roles.

Defend and take action when their boundaries are violated and make sure that you are modeling healthy boundaries in your personal and professional relationships.

Let’s take a look at an example of what I mean by defining, defending and taking action when a boundary has been violated.

The Piano Instructor

Your child has been playing piano for a year. You are quite pleased with his progress and have a very good relationship with his piano instructor. The instructor has been coming to your home for lessons and has recently announced that he has completed construction of his new studio and would like your child to come to the studio for lessons, as will the rest of his students. You think this is a wonderful opportunity because your child will be able to play on a brand new grand piano. The instructor announces that his only available time slot will be on an evening that your spouse works late. You realize that you will be unable to fit it into your schedule and tell him that the time does not work for you. He is firm in his scheduling and suggests that he could pick up your child for the lesson and you could pick him up after the lesson, just after your spouse comes home from work.

Define The Role

Piano instructor is responsible for teaching my child how to play piano. Instructor should be patient, supportive and encouraging.

Defend The Boundary & Take Action

The parent recognizes that the instructor has made a suggestion that violates the definition of the responsibilities he has in his role as the piano instructor. The parent has to choose to either terminate the relationship with the instructor or accept the instructor’s most generous offer to pick up their child for lessons. Whichever choice they make, they are modeling boundary behavior to their child.

What Would You Do?

You have the power to protect. What you should be thinking is that you would have made it clear to the instructor that you appreciate his generous offer, and thanks-but-no-thanks, and the relationship would be terminated.

What tipped you off to a potential problem? If it was that the instructor was unwilling to be flexible in his schedule, which would conveniently pressure you into allowing him to pick up your child, you’re right. However, first and foremost, what should have sparked your concern is the violation of the boundary outside of his role as a piano instructor. The truth is that his offer was most generous, and even if he was not trying to target the child it would be inappropriate for this parent to involve the piano instructor in their transportation responsibilities.

Here is how it should play out:

Define The Role

The limits of this relationship are that the piano instructor is responsible for teaching my child how to play piano. Instructor should be patient, supportive and encouraging.

Defend The Boundary And Take Action

The parent recognizes that the instructor has made a suggestion that violates the definition of the responsibilities he has in his role as the piano instructor. Parent makes it clear to the instructor that they need more time-slot choices than just one, and that although the offer to pick up the child is a generous one, it is not appropriate. If the instructor is unable to offer options, then the parent must terminate the relationship and find another instructor for their child.

The action taken by the parent serves to model healthy boundaries for the child. The child has been given permission through the parent’s actions that it is okay to say “no” when someone offers something to you, even if it means that you might lose something good. Some parents might accept the instructor’s offer for fear that if they didn’t he might be insulted. Even if the instructor’s intention was not to sexually victimize this child, it was a violation of a boundary for him to even make this suggestion. He has a responsibility of maintaining a level of professionalism as defined by his role, as well. He stepped outside of the boundary which was harmful to all involved, even if he was not a sexual predator. When you start to become more experienced at this, you will begin to recognize how other adults are violating boundaries as part of their daily activities without even realizing it. You might even discover instances where even you are violating boundaries without having been aware.


The Apple Of My Eye Trick

The first trick is named after Laura Ahearn's "The Apple Of My Eye" sexual abuse prevention program. This trick is at the top on her list for the most insidious of all because predators use the same innocent vulnerability we strive to protect in our children for purposes of methodically gaining their trust by giving special attention to them so they can eventually sexually abuse them. Children seek love, attention and affection and sexual predators use this vulnerability to “seduce” a child the same way they would attempt to seduce an adult.

Familiarize yourself with some of the tricks we have identified that sexual predators use to access and target potential victims:

Accidental Touching Trick

Children are often unaware that an accidental touching may be intentional or may be an offender attempting to touch closer to genitalia the next time.

Assistance Lure Trick

Offenders may ask a child for help with directions or carrying packages. One convicted offender stated that he liked to hang around kiddie hamburger restaurant bathrooms. He would abuse young boys under the guise of helping them with their zippers.

Another type of assistance lure may be an offender who senses a role he might play by assisting a family with children. His assistance might be needed for babysitting or for driving a child to activities. Watch for those who are more interested in your child than you, there is a reason.

Authority Trick

Many of us have taught our children to respect authority without realizing that individuals who target our children take advantage of their position such as a teacher, coach, religious or club leader.

Desensitize Trick

Offenders may continually talk to children about sex or use pornography to demonstrate sexual acts. They may arouse a child’s curiosity by emailing or leaving sexual material and aids around where they may see them.

Drug & Alcohol Trick

Drugs or alcohol can be used to incapacitate a child making them highly vulnerable to sexual abuse.

Emergency Trick

Crisis can be confusing for young children and offenders count on that so they construct an emergency to lure children.

Fame Trick

Promises are made to make the child a model or movie star.

Friendship Trick

Older children may bribe a younger child (or same age) by saying that they will not be their friend anymore unless they participate in a sexual act.

Games Trick

Body contact games such as wrestling are played where touching genitalia is part of the rules.

Hero Trick / Special Privileges Trick

(Coach/Teacher/Person In A Position Of Authority) Children are often impressed with those individuals they look up to such as those in a position of authority like a coach, teacher, older cousin. They may endure abuse to maintain a relationship where they are receiving special privileges for fear of losing those privileges.

"I Know You" Trick

Do not write your child’s name on the outside of any of their clothing or items they use outside of their home such as umbrellas or lunchboxes. This gives the offender an opportunity to make your child feel as though they know them.

Internet Trick

The internet has become a preying ground for sex offenders trying to lure victims. Offenders will try to get specific information from your child without directly asking for it. For example they may ask if your child plays on sports teams which would eventually lead to a discussion of where your child played these games. Ultimately, they want to try to set up a meeting. Predators on the internet may also transmit pornography to your child.

Job Trick

Promises of high paying jobs easily influence young adults into meeting individuals in questionable places for interviews where they may be sexually abused. Young children may be offered high pay for odd jobs inside an offender’s house where they too may be sexually abused.

Legitimacy Trick

There are a few organizations that promote sexual relations with children and attempt to legitimize this activity. Those offenders may attempt to convince a child that sex with an adult is a legitimate activity.

Outing Trick

Offender is continually attempting to take a child out alone for special trips or outings and insists that no one else attend. A pediatrician in New York who was convicted of sexually abusing many of his patients would take them away for the weekend quite often. Parents trusted him because he was well liked and perceived as a pillar of the community.

Pet Trick

Similar to the assistance lure, the offender may ask a child to help find his lost dog. They may carry props such as a photo of a dog and a leash.

Teaching Trick

Assistance is offered to a family to help teach a child a sport or how to play a musical instrument, often without cost. Parents from across the nation have also informed us that sexual predators may be working as driving school instructors.

Threat Trick

Children may be threatened into cooperation and further silenced. Once the abuse has taken place, they threaten to expose the child either to their parents or to their friends. The offender may threaten the abused child into recruiting other children.

Costume Trick

Most volunteers who dress up as clowns, cartoon characters or as Santa Claus during the holiday season are not pedophiles attempting to access children. However, you should always be aware that there are pedophiles who would do anything to get at kids.


With so many tricks clearly identified, you now may be seeing certain patterns of behavior emerging. You may also be able to detect a predator at the beginning stages of their grooming process – even before they have begun abusing; but you have to be very astute. This is an area that deserves careful consideration because, on one hand, we want to prevent sexual victimization, but on the other, we don’t want to assume someone is a sexual predator targeting children because they display a behavior that, on its own, may not indicate a problem. But when coupled with other behaviors it might mean that there is an abuser preying. Following is a listing of characteristics that have been identified from actual cases as markers for potential trouble. On its own, one red flag may not mean the person is a predator, but accompanied with other red flags it may indicate that the person is capable of sexually abusing your child:

Red Flag 1 - Someone who wants to spend more time with your child than you.

Red Flag 2 - Someone who manages to get time alone with, or attempts to be alone with your child or other children

Red Flag 3 - Someone who insists on hugging, touching, kissing, tickling, wrestling or holding a child, even when a child doesn’t want this affection

Red Flag 4 - Someone who is overly interested in the sexuality of a child or teen and asks either the parents or the child sexually-oriented questions.

Red Flag 5 - Someone who relates extremely well to children and spends most of his/her spare time with them and has little interest in spending time with individuals their own age

Red Flag 6 - Someone who has few or no boundaries and does not respect the limits of their role in their relationship with children.

Red Flag 7 - Someone who regularly offers to babysit, help-out or takes children on day or overnight outings alone.

Red Flag 8 - Someone who buys expensive gifts or gives children money for no reason.

Red Flag 9 - Someone who frequently walks in on children/teens in the bathroom or in the locker room while they are showering or changing.

Red Flag 10 - Someone who goes to parks, beaches or public places where children congregate and spends an exorbitant amount of time staring or taking photographs of children for no apparent reason. You should be suspicious of anyone attempting to photograph your child without your consent.

Red Flag 11 - Someone who inappropriately makes comments about the way your child looks.


Rule 1 - Know Who You Are & Where You Live

Your child needs to know vital information that will help them and others if they are ever lost or missing. That information includes their first and last name, their phone number including area code, their street address, town, state and country. They will also need to know how to call for help using 911 on a telephone. Use this page as your guide and create a larger page so your child can fill in the information.

Rule 2 - Know What To Do When Lost In A Store

When lost in a store, your child should scream the name of the person they came with and find the store clerk or the person with the money by the cash register. If they cannot find the person with the money, they should find a mother with children. If someone tries to take them outside, to the bathroom or to abduct them, they should scream, “Help me, this is not my father (mother, brother or sister). I don’t know them.” If your child is missing in a store you should immediately find a clerk, explain the situation and insist that they call security to immediately close all entries and exits in the store.

Rule 3 - Children Must Be Able To Identify Their Body Parts

Help your child identify their private parts using the correct terminology. Be sure to identify breasts, vagina, penis and buttocks. Your child must also know that these are private areas that their bathing suit covers. Explain that only Mommy or Daddy may touch in a certain way while being groomed or being examined by a doctor with Mom or Dad present.

Rule 4 - Check First

Young children do not have the capacity to make sound decisions about their personal safety. The check-first rule places the responsibility of making those important safety decisions on adults, where they belong. The check-first rule is based on the premise that adults or older children should not be giving children gifts, offering them rides or coercing them into their home or car, for any reason without checking with their mom, dad or a guardian first. Children must check first before accepting a gift or going anywhere with anyone, even if that person is someone known to them. Teens must also use this rule of safety before accepting transportation from someone, especially if it is someone they know.

Rule 5 - Children Must Trust Their Inner Voice, Especially That Yucky Feeling

We all have that feeling inside that tells us what feels right and what feels wrong or uncomfortable. Many children who have been sexually abused describe a feeling of discomfort as having a “yucky” feeling inside. You must teach your child to trust or honor their inner voice or that “yucky” feeling. When you feel uncomfortable, do you trust that feeling and take action? The parent who doesn’t like others rubbing her child’s head, must, herself, trust her inner voice before she can teach her child to. She has to say, “ Please do not do that” and “I don’t like that,” before she can expect to teach her child to do the same. Sometimes parents become so concerned about hurting other people’s feelings that they forget that their own children are being harmed if they fail to express and model healthy limit- setting with other adults. This models behavior that tells children that it’s okay for someone else to do something offensive that makes you feel “yucky” and you should do nothing about it because you might hurt the other person’s feelings. That teaches children to cast aside what they feel is inappropriate to preserve someone else’s feelings because what they feel isn’t as important.

When a child’s feelings are continually cast aside, the child learns that the yucky feeling or the alarm inside of them is unimportant, so they eventually begin to disregard it altogether. This muffling of their inner alarm makes them more vulnerable to sexual predators who are masters at selecting children who have been taught not to trust their feelings. You can teach your child to trust the yucky feeling by trusting your children when they are feeling uncomfortable. Depending upon their age, either you must intervene to prevent the offensive behavior and/or you must empower your child by helping them to articulate to the offending person that their behavior is unacceptable.

Rule 6 - Don’t Be Too Polite

Here’s what one sex offender had to say about being polite: “Know that we will use any way we can to get at children. I was disabled and spent months grooming the parents so they would take me out and help me. No one thought that disabled people could be abusers.” [i]

Teach children to be respectful of the limits and boundaries of the role a person plays in their lives and to defend those boundaries, but not to just be polite. To adults who were sexually abused as children by clergy, being polite and respectful to them meant being silent when they were being sexually abused.

Children hold adults in high esteem, and as another sex offender tells us, “Don’t teach your kids to do everything that adults tell them, otherwise they’ll be too frightened of adult status.”

Rule 7 - No Secrets

Some parents believe that they can teach good secrets and bad secrets. I believe that a child should not be expected to keep any secret at all. I have always told parents to explain to their children, quite simply, that secrets are against the rules. They can’t tell them and if someone asks them to keep a secret, they are not allowed to. When I am out in the community conducting prevention workshops, parents will test the secret rule by asking if it is okay to keep a surprise party a secret. For whatever reason you conjure up, especially surprise parties, there is no reason why a child should be expected to keep a secret.

If you tell your child that there are good secrets and bad secrets then you are giving them the responsibility of deciding whether or not they should keep a secret or tell, a responsibility they may not be ready to handle. The no-secret rule eliminates this problem and models healthy boundaries. You shouldn’t be telling your child something that needs to be kept secret in the first place.

Rule 8 - Say No and Tell When Touch Is Not OK

Have your child practice screaming “NO!” and telling when someone does or says something that doesn’t feel okay. Saying or screaming “No!” and telling is an important concept for your child to understand and feel completely comfortable doing. Role play by pretending to be a person trying to coerce your child into taking off their clothes or assisting them with the buckle on their pants. Be sure to give permission to your child to scream “No, I won’t do that!” or “No, you can’t do that!” and let them repeat back to you what you tried to do as part of the telling exercise. Explain that no one is allowed to touch them in their bathing suit or private areas and if someone tries they should scream “No!” and tell.

Sexual abuse is a violation of a boundary. A boundary is a limit or edge that defines you as separate from others. A parent asked me what they could do to prevent people from continually rubbing their child’s full head of curly hair because it was beginning to bother the child. I certainly don’t blame the child for being bothered, wouldn’t you be bothered if people continually entered your private space to rub your head and tell you how cute you are? Of course this is not a sexual assault, but saying “no” to the easy stuff is what will prepare your child to say “no” if someone tries to touch them in a private area.

Rule 9 - Do Not Give Personal Information Out On The Internet

Children and teens get a lot of benefit from using the Internet, but they can also be targets of crime. If your children are going to use the Internet whether it is to help them with homework or to talk to their friends, there are rules that they must follow:

1 - Never give out personal information.

Personal information means any information that might help someone find out who your child is. Personal information includes their name, address, phone number, parents’/guardians’ names, name of the school they attend, name of the sport teams on which they play, name of the sport fields on which they play, their friends’ names or any other information that someone can use to figure out who they are.

2 - Never meet anyone in person that you met online.

3 - Never send anyone your photo or your school photo without checking first with a parent/guardian.

4 - Always tell a parent/guardian if you receive any e-mails or messages that include inappropriate language and photographs or anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.

There have been many cases where sexual predators accumulated detailed information about a child over a long period of time. One month a predator might ask the color of your child’s uniform and six months later the name of the field on which they play soccer. Over time they develop a very detailed profile of your child and may make attempts to contact them in person. Make your child aware that even the simplest answer to a question might be information someone is using to eventually target them. Sexual predators have found a fertile preying ground on the Internet and your child can avoid danger simply by following these four rules.

Rule 10 - Take Action! It’s Your Right.

Teaching your child to take action is simple. You are giving them permission to take action when they feel uncomfortable or when they have the yucky feeling. I’m reminded of a remarkable story that a friend of mine shared with me about her daughter.


It is important for you to know how to recognize certain physical or behavioral signs that might indicate that your child, or a child you know, is being sexually abused.

Not all of the following indicators will mean that a child is being victimized. Some behaviors listed can be part of normal development or stress. The greater the number of indicators present, and the more sudden the onset, the more reason you have to be concerned. Physical evidence in genital or rectal areas must be taken seriously and treated and reported immediately.

Behavioral Signs

  • A Fear Of Certain Places, People, Or Activities,Especially Being Alone With Certain People
    (Children Should Never Be Forced Or Coerced Into Giving Affection)

  • Reluctance To Undress
  • Disturbed Sleep/Frequent Nightmares
  • Sudden Mood Swings, Withdrawal, Rage, Fear, Anxiety, Anger
  • Excessive Crying
  • Avoids Touch
  • Loss Of Appetite, Or Trouble Eating Or Swallowing
  • Drastic Change In School Performance
  • Drawing With Bizarre Themes
  • Sexually Acting Out On Younger Children
  • Sexual Behavior Or Knowledge Beyond Their Years
  • Has New Words For Private Body Parts
  • Reverting Back To Outgrown Behavior (bedwetting and thumb sucking)
  • Suicide Attempts
  • Self-Mutilation

Physical Signs

  • Difficulty Walking or Sitting
  • Itching Or Pain In The Genital Areas
  • Excessive Bladder Infections
  • Excessive Urinary Tract Infections
  • Excessive Yeast Infections
  • Bleeding Or Trauma In Oral, Genital Or Anal Areas
  • Swollen Or Red Cervix, Vulva, Perineum
  • Sexually Transmitted Disease, Pregnancy Or AIDS

If You Suspect A Child Is Being Sexually Abused, Contact Your Local Police and Child Protection Agency Immediately or Contact CHILDHELP USA's National Child Abuse Hotline At 1-800-4-A-CHILD.


As a society we vehemently condemn child molesters but when someone we know in the community is accused, individuals take sides often refusing to believe that "a pillar of the community" could commit this type of a crime. The true seducer type pedophile is extremely good at what he does. He puts himself in a position in his community where he has easy access to children. He will often work hard (sometimes for years) to gain the trust of parents while at the same time be sexually abusing their child. If an allegation is made against this person by another child, it is often too emotionally difficult for families who trusted and allowed the accused into their home to believe that he could commit such an act against a child. The betrayal is too great and many families will not only deny the possibility, but will blame and defame the child making the allegation. This is what the offender counts on. Families tricked by cunning predators could not have possibly imagined the degree of betrayal possible and the extent that a predator would go to, to get at a child.

[i] Elliott, Michelle. Child Sexual Abuse Prevention: What Offenders Tell Us, Child Abuse & Neglect Vol. 19, No. 5. Pp. 579-594, 1995.

[ii] Ibid.