Here are the words you can teach your children to help them protect themselves.

By Leslie Goldman
Updated October 20, 2017
Robert Llewellyn/Getty Images

It’s been an eye-opening and infuriating week, as millions of women, emboldened by the #MeToo movement, have shared their stories of sexual harassment and abuse. But parents across the country—including those with children involved in sports or dance, in which they can develop an exceptionally close relationship with a coach or mentor—were particularly shaken when former U.S. Olympic gymnast and 2012 Olympic gold medalist McKayla Maroney, 21, spoke out Wednesday about her own experiences with sexual violence, alleging a former team doctor molested her multiple times. “It started when I was 13 years old, at one of my first National Team training camps,” she Tweeted, “and it didn’t end until I left the sport.”

Aside from being horrified at the thought of a young girl being violated by someone she thought she could trust, what can parents do to help ensure their own children are safe?

Victor Pacini, a motivational speaker who has delivered his Be Seen and Heard sexual abuse awareness program to more than 1 million students at schools across the country, says there are ways to discuss sexual abuse with your children without scaring them. “The best way to prevent it is to teach them at a young age what is appropriate and what is not,” says Pacini. Here’s how he suggests you start:

  • At a young age, introduce the idea of “safe touch/unsafe touch.” Pacini recommends you use the words safe and unsafe to describe touching, rather than the more familiar good touch and bad touch. “If a child is being sexually abused, a bad touch might actually feel good at times,” Pacini explains. Explain that a safe touch is a high-five, a handshake, a hug from someone you know and trust. An unsafe touch is a punch, a kick, or a touch to any part of your body that is normally covered by a swimsuit, which is personal to them and them alone, he says.
  • Teach this rule: No one touches these parts unless it is to keep you clean and healthy. Who is allowed to touch those private parts? Parents, as long as it is to keep you clean (as in a bath), or healthy (applying cream for a rash). A doctor may touch, as long as it is to keep you healthy, and as long as a parent or loved one is in the room. But under no circumstances may a soccer coach, bus driver, cousin, or anyone else touch those areas.
  • Talk about safe secrets and unsafe secrets. A safe secret is: “We bought Mommy a bicycle for her birthday! Shhh, don’t tell!” An unsafe secret is a secret that makes you feel sad, scared, bad, or unsafe, explains Pacini.
  • Take away the blame, and empower them to get help. Tell your child, “If anyone ever touches you, it’s not your fault. You should say No! if it happens, and then find a trusted adult and tell them.” And tell them to keep telling until somebody listens and believes them, Pacini adds.

For more info, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at