By Lisa Rapaport

(Reuters Health) – Parents should ideally start talking to kids about inappropriate touching during the preschool years, but a new U.S. poll suggests many wait longer.

By the time kids are in elementary school, one in four parents still hasn’t started conversations about the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touching that are recommended to help prevent sexual abuse, according to the report from the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

“This is a conversation parents should be having multiple times in age-appropriate ways,” said Mott Poll co-director Sarah Clark.

Childhood sexual abuse is much more common than parents may think, and more common than many of the most prevalent childhood diseases, Clark said by email.

Research shows 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before age 18, Clark said.

“In most cases, the abuse is perpetrated by someone they know; and often, abused children don’t tell anyone (or aren’t successful in communicating what happened) for a long time,” Clark added. “When we don’t give children the tools to recognize what is OK vs not OK, and we don’t reinforce that we want them to tell us if someone touches them in a bad way, then we are failing to protect them against a very common danger.”

Three in five parents agree the preschool years are the right time to talk about inappropriate touching, according to the poll, which included 1,106 parents with at least one child aged 2-9 years. Most parents of preschoolers who didn’t have this talk yet believed their child was too young.

While most parents said they would like more help navigating these conversations, only one in four received guidance from a health provider.

Among parents of elementary school children who had not talked about inappropriate touching, the most common reasons were either not getting around to it or feeling kids were still too young. Almost one in five of these parents thought the discussions were unnecessary because inappropriate touching rarely happens to kids.

Most parents were supportive of schools teaching kids about this topic, the poll found. Overall, 60% of parents wanted their child’s school or preschool to teach students about inappropriate touching, and 76% wanted schools to provide information for parents on this topic.

“Some schools have been skittish in the past to address this issue, fearing that parents will object,” said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

“Of course, some parents will still object, but now school officials are armed with some research showing that a majority of parents agree,” Finkelhor, who wasn’t involved in the poll, said by email.

Starting these tough conversations early, with a simple discussion about the names of body parts and which body parts are private, can help make more complicated talks easier to navigate as kids get older, said Dr. Angelica Robles, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Novant Health in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“As they get older, you may want to ask what they know about it and see what questions they have,” Robles, who wasn’t involved in the poll, said by email. “By doing so, they may feel more comfortable discussing it in the future.”

SOURCE: C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, online March 16, 2020.