How to talk to your kids about sexual abuse

August 12, 2019

I will never forget having to explain the Sandy Hook shooting to my oldest son. I had stayed home from the office that day because I was sick. From the time I woke up that morning, I watched in horror and disbelief as the details of the tragedy unfolded on national news stations. My son could tell that something was wrong. So, instead of acting like the world that we live in was not a broken place, I tried to explain the tragedy and loss in a way that he could understand. It was not an easy conversation, but many times the most important conversations are not the easiest ones. 

Talking to children about difficult topics can be terrifying for parents, yet such conversations must take place. We cannot act like our world is not fallen and in need of redemption. There are evil people in the world that intend to do harm to others. If we are going to love our neighbors as ourselves (which must necessarily include the children that God has entrusted to us), then we must also warn them about evil in age-appropriate ways. 

A plan to talk about sexual abuse 

This is particularly true with the matter of sexual abuse. Talking about the topic of sexual abuse is complex because it affects various aspects of our humanity. For instance, while parents want to give their children a biblical vision of sexuality that affirms its goodness and design for the context of marriage, parents must also talk about sexuality in a way that acknowledges the disordered and wicked desires of some people who attempt to exploit it. In other words, because our world is broken, it is not enough to simply affirm what is good about God’s plan for sexuality without also acknowledging that some have taken God’s good gift and sought to use it in a sinful way that is contrary to his design.

There is a necessary balance to be struck when talking with children about things like sexuality and sexual abuse. Previous generations have often spoken of sexuality in ways that failed to rightly celebrate the goodness of God’s design, opting to speak mainly in terms of prohibitions and fear. The danger in our day is to focus so much on the celebration of the goodness of sexuality that we neglect to place it within the broader framework of a fallen world that is longing for redemption in Christ. Thus, we must speak to our children with a wisdom that strikes the balance between God’s design and humanity’s sinful attempts to exchange the truth of God for a lie (Rom. 1). We must learn to speak in a way that says, “Yes,” to sex in the right context while also being able to say, “No,” where necessary.

Because our world is broken, it is not enough to simply affirm what is good about God’s plan for sexuality without also acknowledging that some have taken God’s good gift and sought to use it in a sinful way that is contrary to his design.

When teaching children about their biology and sexuality, we must also admit and explain that not everyone in their life may agree with God’s design. Evil people, even people in their churches, their schools, and tragically, even their homes, may seek to violate and abuse their innocence. So, how can you help your children be prepared to live in a broken world where sexual abuse is a tragic reality? I would suggest following the H.E.L.P. plan (or something similar to it) to prepare them: 

  1. Have the hard conversation now rather than later.
  2. Equip them with specific, age-appropriate details regarding sexuality and sexual abuse.
  3. Listen to them and let them know that you will believe and support them.
  4. Pray that God would protect them every day.

Putting our plan into action

Here is how my wife and I have put this plan into use with our children:

A few years ago, my wife and I began a conversation with my oldest son about God’s good design for sexuality. The conversation did not end two years ago, though. It is an ongoing conversation. 

He knows that if he has questions about anything related to sex he can speak with us at any time. We made it clear from the beginning that there is no need to be ashamed about the conversation because sex is God’s idea. 

We told him to let us know if he hears or sees anything that he has questions about or feels uncomfortable with and assured him that he would never get in trouble for talking to us about this subject. Why? Because we want him to talk to us, not his peers or other adults. This is a conversation that God intended for parents to have with their children (Prov. 1:7-8). 

In fact, this is a conversation that my wife and I have been having in some form or another with all of our children from the time that they could bathe. In an age-appropriate manner, we explain to our children that certain parts of our bodies are not appropriate for others to see or touch. As the children get older, we go into greater depth. We don’t want our children to learn about anatomy from pop culture or pornography. We want to disciple them to know God as creator and designer of their bodies, for their good and his glory.

A conversation before camp 

So, as our oldest son prepared for church camp this summer, we sat him down to revisit the topic of sexuality, particularly as it related to sexual abuse. While it was uncomfortable, it was necessary. 

We explained to him that no one should be watching him in the restroom or the shower, regardless of what someone may tell him. We explained that it was never appropriate for an adult to touch him or insist on any type of affection from him (a hug, a kiss, sitting on a lap, etc.). We were specific, because we did not want to resort to vagueness in order to avoid the discomfort of the difficult subject. 

We established a code word or phrase that he could use when we talked on the phone that would alert us to a problem. If he used the word or phrase, then we would immediately pick him up. 

We told him that regardless of the threats that someone might use against him or his family, we would protect and believe him. We told him that while he should be respectful to adults, he did not have to comply with any request or demand that was outside the normal course of adult-child interaction. 

Finally, to make sure that he understood, we talked through a few scenarios, asking him what he would do if he encountered them. Then, we prayed that God would protect him and the other children headed to camp. 

Was the conversation easy? Not at all. Was it necessary? Absolutely, because loving and caring for the vulnerable requires uncomfortable but frank conversations that prepare them and expose the wicked and unfruitful works of darkness (Eph. 5:11). 

Conversations are not the end-all-be-all measures to prevent the wickedness of sexual abuse. Evil people will continue to do evil things in this world until Christ returns to make everything sad become untrue. Until then, we weep over the brokenness and do our best to prepare and protect the vulnerable while being “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16).

Casey B. Hough

Casey B. Hough (Ph.D., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as lead pastor at Copperfield Church in Houston, Texas, and assistant professor of biblical interpretation at a Luther Rice College and Seminary. Casey and his wife, Hannah, have three sons and two daughters. For more ministry resources from Casey, visit his … Read More

Hannah Hough

Hannah is a registered nurse who resides in Houston, Texas, with her family. Her husband, Casey, serves as the lead pastor at Copperfield Church. She is a teacher to their five children. God has graciously brought three children into their family biologically and two children through adoption. Hannah is passionate about … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24