How to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse During the Holidays

Sexual abuse increases during the holidays when kids are often left with babysitters, there are guests staying in the home, and parents are often distracted. (Maskot Archives / Getty Images)

The end of the year brings a time to celebrate with family and friends. It feels cozy and carefree. Unfortunately, the holiday season is also a high-risk time for sexual abuse against children

Everyone thinks something like this would never happen in their family. But 93 percent of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the victim knows. More specifically, 34 percent of perpetrators are relatives of the victim, and 59 percent are non-relative friends or acquaintances. Only 7 percent are strangers.  

Child sexual abuse can be perpetrated by anyone of any gender and not only by adults—younger cousins and siblings can perpetuate violence as well. Because people spend extra time with loved ones and family members during the holidays, the risk of child sexual abuse inevitably increases. This is even more important to recognize when you consider that most children do not disclose right away that they have been sexually abused, and some may never disclose. 

While people are busy making their favorite holiday dish or catching up with old friends, it’s easy to forget to check in on the kids—especially if we believe the gathering is a safe space. Finding a balance between having a restful and cheerful holiday season and creating a safe environment to protect the children around you is essential. So, what can you do to help prevent sexual violence against children during the holidays? 

1. Accurate Names

Teach your children the anatomically correct names of private parts, such as “penis” and “vagina.” You should start as young as possible. If children aren’t taught names, or if they are taught euphemisms, they won’t be able to identify or communicate when something has happened to them. Demystifying body parts empowers children to understand their bodies, reduces the likelihood of grooming and increases their ability to disclose if something happens.

You can teach them using Your Whole Body by Lizzie DeYoung Charbonneau or one of these age-specific books, put together by Cath Hakanson.

Demystifying body parts empowers children to understand their bodies.

2. Body Privacy 

Teach your children about body privacy.  From an early age, your child should know that some body parts are private.  This means they are not to be viewed, shown or touched by anyone, even family and friends, except in certain situations. Acceptable situations include those related to hygiene and health.

Your child should know to tell you whenever someone views or touches their private parts, even if it is an acceptable situation. They should also know to tell you anytime they view or touch someone else’s private parts. Empower your child with body autonomy and boundaries by allowing them age-appropriate privacy and teaching them to take care of their own bodies (e.g. bathing and using the bathroom) so they do not have to rely on others for help. When teaching about body privacy you should always use an empowerment mentality and not a shame-based attitude.

You can teach your children using Teach Your Dragon Body Safety by Steve Herman, My Body Bubble by Michael Gordon, and 3 Ways To Teach Your Child “Body Safety” by Nurtured First.

3. Consent With Children

While consent should be taught regularly outside of the holiday season, it’s a helpful reminder, especially for young children, during this time of year.

It is important for children to learn that boundaries are acceptable and encouraged. Teaching children about consent helps them respect other people’s bodies and boundaries. It also helps them identify when their own bodies or boundaries have been violated.  et them know that no one can physically touch them (even if it’s a hug) if they feel uncomfortable. Conversely, they also don’t have the right to touch someone else if that person is uncomfortable. Don’t forget to model consent.

You can teach your children consent with Let’s Talk About Body Boundaries, Consent, and Respect by Jayneen Sanders and I Said No! Kid-to-Kid Guide to Keeping Body Parts Private by Kim King, Zach King, and Sue Rama.

4. Consent With Adults

Sit down with friends and family to discuss values and rules you want them to abide by when interacting with your child. This may be a difficult or awkward conversation, but it will help keep your child safe.

Prepare what you want to say beforehand and make it a collaborative conversation. Explain that you empower your child to uphold their boundaries and bodily autonomy. This could mean that your child chooses not to hug their relatives, and they shouldn’t be forced or guilted into doing so. Also, explain that you want your family to model the other values discussed in this article. Lastly, regularly reminding friends and family during large gatherings can be helpful to jog people’s memory.

Protecting young people doesn’t need to be an individual task; having this discussion can also help ease the burden and responsibilities parents feel. You might even feel more at ease after having this conversation with your circle of friends and family.

You can start with this blog, magazine or article for helpful tips and templates.

5. Bad Secrets

Teach your children about “bad secrets”—secrets that pertain to their private parts or someone else’s. Numerous studies have found that most perpetrators ask the child to keep it a secret and many tell the child that they will get in trouble if they tell anyone. Make sure your child knows that they will never get in trouble for talking to you about a secret or a surprise. 

Further, make sure they know they should always tell you about any secrets or surprises that pertain to private parts. Tell your child that you will protect them and they will be safe, no matter who told them to keep it a secret or what they said would happen if they told. 

You can teach your children about “bad secrets” using Good Secrets, Bad Secrets by Deborah J. Monroe, Do You Have a Secret? by Jennifer Moore-Mallinos and Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept by Jayneen Sanders.

6. Open Conversations

Make sure your child is comfortable having difficult conversations with you. Encourage your child to come to you about anything that bothers them, even if it isn’t related to sexual abuse. When they come to you, validate their feelings and help them feel heard. The more you do this with the little things, the more likely they are to come to you with the big things. Come up with a code word for your child to discreetly signal if they feel uncomfortable or if they want to talk to you. 

Teaching children values and skills for sexual violence prevention should be ongoing and intermittent.  The more you discuss consent, body autonomy, and boundaries the more normalized these topics become. As they grow up, your conversations should change to match their developmental stage.

Some materials that can help start those conversations are the Mindful Talk Cards by the School of Mindfulness and Guided Lessons by Educate Empower Kids.

When they come to you, validate their feelings and help them feel heard. The more you do this with the little things, the more likely they are to come to you with the big things.

7. Signs and Responding 

Try to limit circumstances where your child is alone with another adult/older child, even if you trust them. That said, this is not always possible and it is important for your child to develop meaningful relationships with many different people. 

While following these recommendations can reduce the risk of child sexual abuse, there is no way to 100 percent prevent it. It is important to look for signs of abuse. If something does happen, there are numerous resources to help. We recommend looking at resources by RAINN, the Stop Abuse Campaign and Darkness to Light.

Academic literature has established substantial evidence of the devastating lifelong physical, psychological, and emotional consequences of child sexual violence. Everyone thinks something like this would never happen in my family until it does. These seven tips are straightforward ways to create a safer environment for your children this holiday season.

While it’s scary to think about this and damper the happiness of the holiday season, it’s imperative to stay vigilant and understand the heightened risks because a child’s safety and well-being should always come first. 

Further Readings: 

Up next:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

About and

Omny Miranda Martone is the founder and CEO of the Sexual Violence Prevention Association (SVPA), a national nonprofit dedicated to preventing sexual violence systemically.
Yasmin Hung is SVPA's research and media associate.