Children's abilities to recognize a "good" person as a potential perpetrator of childhood sexual abuse

Child Abuse Negl. 2010 Jul;34(7):490-5. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2009.11.007. Epub 2010 Jun 1.


Objective: This study examined the ability of children to recognize "good" people as potential perpetrators prior to and after completing a personal safety program. There were three objectives to the study. The first was to determine whether young children could recognize the inappropriateness of a sexual request coming from people described as either "good" or "bad." Second, the study examined whether preschoolers could be educated to recognize inappropriate touch requests regardless of the good/bad descriptor. Finally, we explored if children's ability to learn the recognition skill depended upon their age.

Methods: Ninety-three, primarily Hispanic (72%) preschool children (M age=3.9 years) completed the Body Safety Training program (BST; Wurtele, 2007), a classroom-based behavioral program. They responded to questions about "good" and "bad" people requesting to touch their private parts prior to and after the educational program.

Results: At pre-testing, children had more difficulty recognizing inappropriate touch requests when made by "good" people compared to "bad" people. After completing the BST program, children improved in their ability to recognize the inappropriateness of requests made by both "good" and "bad" people. At pretesting, correct responding varied across age groups, with a greater percentage of older children (age 5) correctly responding to the "bad" cases compared to 3- and 4-year olds. At post-testing, a marginally significant age difference was found for cases involving "good" people and significant differences were found for cases involving "bad" people. Almost all 4- and 5-year-old children (94% and 96%, respectively) correctly responded to these inappropriate requests compared with only 71% of the 3 year olds.

Conclusion: Pre-test results demonstrated that young children had difficulty recognizing the inappropriateness of a request when it was made by a "good" person. Post-test findings demonstrated that children as young as 3 years of age can learn the inappropriateness of such requests even when coming from "good" people, although 3 year olds had more difficulty recognizing inappropriate-touch requests compared to 4- and 5-year-old children.

Practice implications: Results support the challenge of helping young children learn to recognize potential perpetrators, especially those described as "good" people.

Keywords: Childhood education; Childhood sexual abuse; Offenders; Prevention.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Child Abuse, Sexual / prevention & control*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Criminals
  • Family
  • Female
  • Health Education / methods*
  • Hispanic Americans / psychology
  • Humans
  • Learning*
  • Male
  • Program Evaluation*
  • Safety
  • Schools
  • Students / psychology*
  • United States / epidemiology