How do I protect a child from sexual abuse?

Tools to protect children

Years ago I saw a video by Dr. Burrowes with exactly the same title. It not only gave me a greater insight into how sexual abuse happens but also tools to work with. Since that day I have been applying this in my work with children. In this blog I share common misconceptions around sexual abuse, what dr. Burrowes’ recommendations are and how I have applied them.


Stranger danger

Many people think they protect their children from sexual abuse by telling them not to trust strangers. That sounds logical. The stranger is unknown and that is where the danger lies, not in our own homes. This Dangerous Stranger is a fabrication that is meant to reassure us adults. A stranger means it cannot be someone from my family or someone from my group of friends. We find that too scary to imagine. Unfortunately, this way of talking about sexual abuse does not match what statistics teach us about how and where it takes place. If a child is a victim of sexual abuse, it is much more likely to happen by a family member, a friend or a professional who is familiar with the child. That’s an uncomfortable truth. It is important that we face these so that we can give the children in our midst a message that does help to prevent sexual violence.

Sexual abuse is much more likely to occur with someone who is familiar with the child than with a stranger.


Marc Dutroux vs. the sports teacher

That got me thinking a lot. Growing up in the Netherlands in the 1990s the case of Marc Dutroux dominated the news. He was the nightmare of every parent, the epitome of the Dangerous Stranger. I was 10 years old then, the same age as some of his victims. My mom decided I had to take self-defense lessons, so that I could defend myself if someone wanted to kidnap me.

From day 1, I felt uncomfortable and unsafe with the self-defense teacher. The way he looked at me and the way he always chose me to demonstrate the movements with, gave me shivers of fear all over my body. They were always a kind of grips where I had to get myself out of with a series of movements. I kept trying to calm myself down. He wasn’t doing anything strange, was he? Then one day a student said to me, “He always picks you, doesn’t he?” I was shocked. Someone else had noticed the same thing! That lesson when he called me to the front to demonstrate, I said no. My legs were shaking. He looked very surprised. It was quiet for a moment, the tension was unbearable. He recovered and chose someone else to domonstrate the exercise with. A sigh of relief flowed through my body. It was possible to say no. I had taken it the wrong way. The exercise was over. He called us together again and with a look in his eyes that I cannot describe, he called me to the front to do the next exercise. I was afraid to say no again. As I walked to the front I felt the tension in my body and hoped that the class would end soon.

I don’t know exactly what I thought because I had no words for it. I still remember how I felt.

If I’m honest, I don’t know exactly what I was thinking, because I didn’t have the words for it. However, I still remember how I felt. I felt fear and horror for this man. I didn’t trust him. I felt dominated by him. I felt he wanted something from me. I felt I had to obey him as my teacher. I felt helpless. When I think about it, I feel it again.

One day I tried to talk to my mom about it. “Mom, I don’t want to go to self-defense anymore,” I said. “Oh please just go”, said my mother, “it’s only a few more lessons and everything has already been paid for”. I did not argue with her. A few more lessons, I told myself. Then he’ll be out of my life forever.

When I was 13, I attended an obligatory class called ‘self-care’ at school. The teacher talked about the words sexual harassment and sexual intimidation. She described it from the perspective of the person who experienced the behavior as transgressive. It was not about the intent of the perpetrator, who may not see any harm in what he or she is doing, but instead about the fear, anger, or other negative feelings that transgressive behavior evokes in the person experiencing it. The penny dropped and a weight off my shoulders. This was something. The something had a name. It happened to others too. It was not my fault.

How do you form thoughts about something you have no words for? It is precisely the reason children are so vulnerable to abuse.

The lack of clarity in my head, the lack of words for what happened to me, is something that many victims of child abuse also experience. If you don’t have words for something, does it exist? How do you form thoughts about something you have no words for? It is precisely the reason that children are so vulnerable and that sex offenders often get away with their behavior.

Once you start talking about these kinds of topics, others dare to open up about it too. I had friends tell me about an abusive sports teacher, neighbor, father… Even about a principal of a primary school who was immensely popular among parents and children, who turned out to have child pornography. It’s the Marc Dutroux’s in the world who make the headlines, but most of the suffering caused by sexual abuse happens much closer to home. This is important to know and accept. Because only then can we formulate the right messages that can actually help children.

There is one more uncomfortable truth that we must face before we can move on to what we can do.


Sexual abuse among children

A child is three times more likely to be a victim of sexual abuse by another child than by an unknown adult. This is not the largest category of sexual abuse, but it is one of the most difficult to identify because both the perpetrator and the victim are children. It is estimated that 30% of child sexual abuse is committed by someone under 18. Because in the Stranger Danger narrative the perpetrator is always an unknown adult, children have difficulty understanding that what they experience at the hands of familiar (older or same-aged) children can also be classified as abuse.

Most children who are victims of sexual abuse do not turn to abusing others, but some children do. Dr. Burrowes further links the viewing of internet pornography to the violent sexual experiences of young teens. She warns, “We live in a world where our children sexually abuse each other and we don’t even talk about it.” (see video 4:32)


What we can teach children

We cannot rely on children to naturally understand that what they are experiencing is sexual abuse and that it is wrong. It’s up to us to teach them this.

We cannot rely on children to naturally understand that what they are experiencing is sexual abuse and that it is wrong. It must be taught.

These are Dr. Burrowes’ recommendations:

1. Teach small children that the parts of the body covered by their underpants are special. They may touch themselves, but not play games with others that touch those body parts.
2. Teach children anatomically correct names for their body parts, including their genitals. A girl who is taught to refer to her vagina/vulva* with a euphemism learns that that part of her body is taboo. This makes talking about it more difficult, promotes shame and taboo and with that, makes them more vulnerable to sexual abuse.
3. Teach children that their bodies belong to them and that others should respect their choices. If a child doesn’t want to be tickled anymore, then stop. If a child doesn’t want to kiss someone or shake hands, don’t force them. There are ways of greeting that do not require physical contact. Teach children saying no to touching or being touched is acceptable.
4. Be a family where problems can be discussed. A perfect family is not a family without problems, but rather a family with problems that should be discussed. Listen to your children and take them seriously. Not being believed by your parents can cause just as much harm as the abuse itself. Let children know that you are always proud of them when they tell the truth, even when the truth is hard to hear.

* Vagina is officially the inside, everything you can see on the outside is called vulva. But vagina is used more and is correct enough for small children. The point is that it has a name, so try to stay clear from unclear formulations like lady bits or ‘down there’ because they are not specific and thus give the feeling that it should not really have a name. Using swear words doesn’t help facilitate open conversation around genitals, nor do euphemisms like muff, pussy, peach, cherry etc.


What I Learned: Applied to Toddlers and Preschoolers

Your penis/vagina is yours

I started with the simplest step, naming the genitals of the children I work with, emphasizing their special nature. Once out of the bath I would say: “I’ll help you dry off, but you can dry your penis/vagina yourself, because it is yours.” What happened next, I didn’t see coming. The kids loved it! “Mine!” they shouted happily and then dried themselves off. One time I had a sad reaction from a 4-year-old girl. She was tired and didn’t want to dry herself, she said, half weeping. Then I said, “OK, with your permission I can help you. Do you want me to help you dry your vagina? ” Yes, she nodded happily. The idea that her choice was respected made her happy.

Teach children the right words for their body parts: they love it!

A four-year-old boy once asked me: “My penis is mine, isn’t it, Esther? That means I can touch it, right? ” I replied: “Yes, all yours! You can touch it yourself when you are alone, for example in your bedroom or in the bathroom.” He happily hopped out of the living room.

A little girl of three once stated proudly, when I asked her sister to sit on both her butt cheeks instead of leaning against the chair half-standing: “Look, I sit on both my butt cheeks and on my vagina!”

The joy and pride that this little change brought about made me feel even more that I wasn’t burdening them with “grown-up things,” but actually empowered them at an age when they’re interested in their anatomy.


Waving is fun too

Not forcing children into physical contact that they don’t want, is something I’ve always done. When I see parents forcing their children to kiss or shake hands, or adults who feel free to kiss a child that is not their own, I cringe. When a parent offers me a kiss from their child, I respond with: “If you want to, but you don’t have to! I also enjoy waving to say hello or goodbye.”

I made tickling a game tool to teach children what “consent” is. When a child asks to be tickled, I add, “OK, and if you don’t like it anymore, you say stop and I’ll stop immediately.” And that’s what I do. Many children find this a fun game (“Tickle! Stop! Tickle! Stop!”) and it is very educational, also for other adults around us. Sometimes I explain why we do it that way. I explain that this way kids learn their body is their own. Even though they’ve asked to be tickled, they can always stop the game if they don’t like it anymore. I explain that if they themselves are treated with respect, they are also more likely to do that to others.

At the forest preschool where I work, we also extend this principle to food. Children are served food and have to sit until everyone has finished, but if they don’t want to eat then we don’t force them. Parents invariably report that children eat better at school than at home.

At school, we have many teachers and every child has his favorite. If a child has to go to the toilet, someone comes along to help. I always ask if a child needs help with wiping and if they want help from me or a colleague. In the beginning, when many children did not know me yet, that meant that I had to go and get a colleague regularly. Since respect for the child and free choice are central to the forest school, fortunately, this didn’t need any explanation between colleagues.

It is almost always possible with some effort to ensure a child’s self-determination over his or her body. However, when changing a diaper, the child has no choice. We can hardly let the child sit in their poo. The choice of who does it can help a child feel empowered. It also helps to allow them to play the largest possible role in the process themselves. They can take a diaper and the wipes and lie down themselves. Even if a child wants to put a thumb in their mouth after having been to the toilet and before washing their hands, you have no choice but to intervene. Where hygiene and health are at stake, you have to physically stop a child. I do that as kindly as possible: “I know you like to suck your thumb, but the toilet you just touched is dirty, so we have to wash your hands first. When we’re done washing hands, you can definitely suck your thumb. ”

We also teach the children to stand up for themselves with the words: “Stop, I don’t like it anymore.” For children who continue to play too wild after a warning, it helps to stay very close and physically stop them if they go too far. “That child almost got hurt, did you see that?” I say then. If you stay close, your body and your gaze are a physical reminder of the warning not to go too far. I also try to point out to children how others experience what they do: “Look at his face? Do you think he still likes it?” In this way, children learn that “stop” can also be communicated through body language and they learn to put themselves in the shoes of the other.

If you normalize the question of whether you have permission to touch someone, a child will be more aware if someone does something against their will or if they do it to another.

These are all ways that normalize the question of whether you have permission to touch someone. If children understand this principle, they will be more aware if someone else touches them without their permission or if they go too far with someone else.


Talking about difficulties

With the age group I work with now, children between the ages of 3 and 6, speaking the truth is the rule rather than the exception. I therefore do not insist on telling the truth. When a child has shared something that may have been difficult to share, I would compliment them by saying, “How great that you told me, because now I can help you. How do you want us to fix it? Shall we talk to the other child? ”


What I Learned: Applied to children aged 7+

The importance of self-determination over our bodies

During a summer camp I lead, I noticed many children were violent towards each other. One day I decided to use our circle-time to discuss the self-determination that we all have over our bodies and its importance.

“Where are we if we don’t have a body?” I asked. “Then we are dead,” replied one of the children. I went on to say that we need our body to live, to enjoy life and therefore it is valuable just like life itself. We eat healthy and exercise to take good care of our bodies because having a healthy body is a blessing. We also feel emotions in our bodies. Fear can feel like butterflies in your stomach, anger like scorching heat and joy can feel like you are flying. So we need our bodies to be able to experience things. And just as important as my body is to me, someone else’s body is to another. It is therefore very important that we respect everyone’s body. Each person gets to decide who can touch them. We call this consent. And you can give consent with words, but it can also be communicated through body language.

I concluded with an exercise where everyone could greet each other without using words. There were two possibilities: The arms wide, to invite a hug. Or your hands folded over your chest, as the greeting “namaste” that they know from the yoga we do. The children started to hug each other, laughing. I also participated. I spread my arms wide for one of the toughest boys in the group. He smiled uncomfortably. I reacted immediately and folded my arms across my chest with a smile. Now he smiled back gratefully and did the same. In that split second I felt something change between us. It was the beginning of trust.


Sexuality and embarrassment

One day I decided to talk to the group about sexuality, after hearing some swear words related to sexual diversity. It was very difficult because the children were not at all used to talking openly about sexuality. Their embarrassment spread to me. What helped me was to make this explicit. I explained that when I was little, sexuality usually wasn’t discussed, it was taboo. Now as adults, we would like to do things differently because we recognize that taboos are harmful. Yet since no one showed us how to talk about these things with youngsters like you, it is not easy for us to break the cycle of shame and taboo. I asked them to help me keep this conversation as open as possible by not laughing. It helped because by expressing my own embarrassment, it actually pretty much disappeared. The giggles also diminished slightly.

Talking about sexuality is not easy. It doesn’t matter if you feel embaressed. Mention it. It lightens the tension.

I would like to give this as a tip if you talk to children about sexuality in any role: It doesn’t matter if you feel embarrassed. Don’t try to cover it up. Express it. There is something very powerful in that vulnerability. A child is capable of empathy. That you do something that you find difficult in order to help them, that is a beautiful thing. If they don’t realize that at the moment, then perhaps they will later when they remember the conversation. Don’t let it stop you. By breaking the taboo, we ensure that children can stand up for themselves and dare to ask for help. In this way, children learn to say no to sexual violence and we can help the children who have been victims of sexual abuse to stop it and process it.



Sexual abuse of children often occurs between a known or trusted adult and a child. It also occurs between children. The story of the Dangerous Stranger makes it difficult for children to recognize sexual abuse by acquaintances and non-adults.

We cannot rely on children to naturally understand that what they are experiencing is sexual abuse and that it is wrong. We must teach them that.

What we can do is teach children that genitals are special and that they belong to them. We can teach them what their correct names are, to break the taboo surrounding genitals and sex. We can respect their self-determination over their bodies. We can talk openly about problems, emphasizing that the truth can always be told, even when it is difficult to hear.

By breaking the taboo, we ensure that children can stand up for themselves and dare to ask for help. Knowledge of their right to self-determination protects them from the sexual abuse of others.


It’s your turn!

I am very curious to know how you will apply these insights to your interactions with the children in your life. Was it difficult or was it not too bad? What are you doing already? What do you want to do more? What do you struggle with? I’d love to hear it! Comment below or email me your stories to and of you’ve found it interesting, please feel free to share this blog with your friends.

Written by Esther Maagdenberg

Owner of We Nurture, teacher, child coach in training, child yoga teacher, and anthropologist. She is Dutch and lives and works in Italy.

body safety | consent | health | relationships | sexual abuse prevention | sexual education


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