Questions Children Ask About Abuse

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It can be challenging to talk about abuse with children, but opening the lines of communication is important. If adults never broach the subject, it can be harder for children to talk about abuse when it happens. Here are some “Tips for Talking to Children about Child Abuse,” and some questions frequently asked by children, developed by the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Center for Victims of Crime.

Children may want to know: “What is child abuse?”

Child abuse is when an adult:

  • hurts a child and it is not an accident

Abuse can be hitting, constant yelling, or unwanted touching. You can explain, “If someone is hurting you or making you uncomfortable, ask the person to stop or leave and tell someone you trust about what happened.”

Physical abuse is when an adult:

  • hurts a child by hitting, shaking, choking, burning, pinching, beating, or any other action that causes pain or injury

You can explain, “If you are physically abused, you may notice cuts, bruises, or other marks on your body.”

Emotional abuse is when an adult:

  • hurts a child by always yelling
  • threatens to leave
  • continually says mean things

You can explain, “If you are emotionally abused, you may feel like you are all alone and that no one cares about you.”

Sexual abuse is when an adult or someone older than a child:

  • touches the private parts of a child’s body or has a child touch the older person’s private parts (You can explain that private parts are the parts normally covered by bathing suits or underwear.)
  • shows a child pictures or movies of people without their clothes on or takes these types of pictures of a child

You can explain, “If someone is sexually abusing you, you may feel uncomfortable, scared, or confused.”

Neglect is when an adult:

  • does not give the food, care, and place to live that a child needs

You can explain, “If you are neglected, you may not have clean clothes, a bed to sleep in, or medicine when you are sick.”

Children may ask: “Who abuses kids?”

  • Explain that some children are abused by strangers
  • Acknowledge that most children are abused by someone they know
  • Note that abuse can happen to children of all kinds 
  • Abuse can happen anywhere—at home, school, day care, or the playground

Children may wonder: “Why would someone abuse children?”

Reinforce that most adults care about children and never cause them harm. The Tips document suggests explaining it this way:  “It can be hard to believe that someone you love or someone who is nice can hurt you or other kids, but some adults lose their tempers or can’t control the way they act. Drinking alcohol or using drugs can also make it hard for some people to control how they act. An adult who hurts children has a problem and needs to get help to stop.”

Children may ask: “Is it my fault that this happened to me?”

State emphatically, "No!" Explain to the child that no matter what, abuse is never the child’s fault, and children never deserve abuse.

Children need to know: “How can I stop abuse?”

Explain to children that if they think that they are being abused, they need to tell someone they trust. Urge them never to keep abuse a secret, even if the person hurting them tells them that something bad will happen if they tell. Suggest that if they do not have someone they can trust, they can speak to someone at school (like a teacher, counselor, or school nurse) or a friend’s mom or dad.

Children may wonder: “What will happen to the abuser if I tell?”

You can explain that an adult who hurts children needs special help to learn to stop. While this person is getting help, the child may see less of him or her. This may be tough for the child, especially if that person is a part of their family.

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One of the things I love about the Circle of Grace program, currently being sponsored by Safe Church, is the way it encourages children to talk with a trusted adult when something feels unsafe. Children are taught to identify trusted adults in their lives (adults who are honest and who care about them). They also learn to look the adult in the eyes and say "I have something important to tell you". Then they can describe what happened and how they feel using Circle of Grace language, which they are familiar iwth. And because the program includes information for teachers and parents; it helps adults in the church community learn how to respond to a child who discloses feeling unsafe, or an abuse situation. The Circle of Grace program makes our churches safer places because it helps children do exactly what has been recommended in this blog. Find out more about Circle of Grace on the Safe Church website - click on the left sidebar where it says, "Education is the Best Prevention."