It is ultimately our job as parents to teach our children how to keep their bodies’ safe. In the current climate, stories of sexual assault and harassment are being told in record numbers and because of this national conversation, children and teenagers are hearing about terms they don’t understand and subject matter that is complicated. This is a critical moment to teach kids practical ways to understand what they are hearing and teach children that they have the power to speak up and stay safe. They will have questions about what they hear. Here are five suggestions for how to talk about these issues with your children.
- Answer the questions your kids are actually asking- rarely will you need to explain the nitty gritty details of assault and rape. With all of the news on sexual assault and rape, kids are hearing and seeing things on the news, in the home, in school, and not understanding what they mean. If they ask about terms related to rape or sexual assault, first ask them where they heard it and what they know about it. It is critical to understand the starting point for children’s questions and their understanding of the terms that they are using. You want to know if they have seen or heard something particularly disturbing or frightening. You want to know if they have friends who are sharing information that your child is not prepared to hear. Answer what your children are asking and let them lead the conversation. And, if they are asking about specific words like rape, have your explanation be relatable to their world and how you might explain a violation of personal boundaries in their terms.
- Teach your kids of all ages about consent. While your older kids need to understand consent in a sexual context, your younger kids need to understand it in a more general way - who and how other people can touch their bodies and how they can touch others. Children are constantly learning about the power of their voices and what it means to say “no” to someone. Review with your children on a regular basis before they enter new environments who is allowed to touch them (parents, doctors) and how people are allowed to touch them. Make it clear that they have a right to tell their friends not to touch them in certain ways. Just as we need to inculcate in our children their right to say “no,” we need to teach children to respect someone else’s “no.” If someone feels like their “no’s” are being ignored, they may stop saying no. If someone feels like they can continue to negotiate and badger until someone’s “no” becomes a “yes,” they may continue that dynamic in other settings and at other ages where someone’s safety is at risk.
- Both men and women need to talk to children about sexual harassment and assault. Both boys and girls need to hear about sexual harassment and assault. It should not only be moms and school psychologists teaching just girls about keeping our bodies and feelings safe from harassment and assault. Fathers and trusted male adults need to have a voice in these conversations so that children understand that men and women stand together against sexual harassment. Both our sons and daughters need to participate in these conversations on what harassment and assault are, ways to be respectful of their friends and partners, and how keep themselves safe.
- Role Play with your children on how to speak up when they don’t like how they’re being touched or spoken to. DIfferent kids will need different scripts on how and when to speak up. You can’t just tell your children what to say in a given situation, you need to help them practice it. Role play can be uncomfortable or even embarrassing for some people, but your children will not be equipped to speak up and protect themselves if they haven’t built the muscle memory of doing so. Offer them different scenarios - a friend is playing too rough, a friend is touching their clothes in a way that annoys them, a particular adult always hugs them and it makes them uncomfortable, a person talks about their body in a way they don’t like. Two easy lines to help them practice in almost any scenario are: “Please don’t touch my body that way.” “Please don’t speak about my body that way.”
- Recognize the role popular culture and social media play in perpetuating society’s acceptance of sexual harassment and assault. Help your kids become critical consumers of television, film and music. In the shows that they are watching, who has power? Who has choice in relationships and who is a passive participant? Ask your children how they feel about certain storylines and depictions of boys and girls, men and women in things they watch. Speak to your children honestly about what certain songs are about, how you feel about the subject matter and take a stand if you don’t want those songs being played in your family. Be honest about why you have negative feelings about certain politicians, athletes, musicians and actors. You can say something like: “He does not treat women with respect.” Your children should know and understand that is an important criteria for admiring someone.
Don’t wait for the magic moment to have these conversations in your own family. Some of us wonder that if we have a hard time speaking up for ourselves, how are we capable of teaching our children how to do that? Think of role play as a useful tool for everyone in your family, not just for your children. Men and women, boys and girls are never too old nor too young to have the ongoing conversation about how we treat each other with respect.
This piece was a collaborative effort between Vanessa Bennett and Mary Pat Draddy, LMSW and Outreach Director for Dynamo Girl.