A Bridge to Sexual Assault Prevention: Helping Kids Build Healthy Relationships

Content warning: Rape, sexual assault

It's startling that in the United States, nearly one in five women has been raped, and about half of women have experienced other types of sexual assault. Almost half of the female rape victims are under the age of 18. That's why as parents, grandparents, teachers, and mentors, we must take steps to stop sexual assault. We can empower ourselves and our girls and boys with knowledge about sexual assault and help our kids create healthy relationships.

How do we protect our kids?

The first thing to do is to make sure our children learn to build healthy relationships. Teen dating violence -- and sexual violence -- can be stopped before it starts when girls and boys know how to do this. Healthy friendships and dating relationships during adolescence will have a positive influence on relationships throughout their lives.

Here are some tips to talk to your kids about healthy relationships:

  • Tell your younger children that it is okay to confide in you if something bad happens, whether it involves a friend or relative.

  • Let your children know that no one has the right to pressure them into doing something they don't want to do and that they shouldn't pressure someone into something they don't want to do.
  • Tell your teens that in a healthy relationship, there is respect and honesty between both people, which includes respecting a person's body or their decision about sex. Teens should always feel safe in a relationship, which includes protecting themselves from contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Talk to your teens about what to do if they see someone bullying or taking advantage of another teen or child. Let them know that they have the power to speak up if their gut tells them something is wrong. Saying something like "boys will be boys" and "that's how she shows she likes you" should no longer excuse inappropriate behavior or lack of respect.
  • The next step is to share with your children some positive tips about dating relationships. How to set healthy boundaries, ways to get to know someone safely, and what to do when sexual feelings come into play are all important topics. Be aware that teens will talk to you about what's going on with friends before telling you about their own relationships. That's okay! You can use some of these conversation openers to explore ideas about what makes a healthy relationship, how to deal with conflict, and how to recognize the signs of an unhealthy or harmful relationship. Because these concepts work for both friendships and dating relationships, what young people learn in one can carry over into the other.

    Finally, talk to your children about sexual assault, especially about the kinds of assault that aren't so easy to identify. Let them know that:

    • Sexual assault isn't always physical. It's any type of sexual contact or behavior that happens without the person's consent. Sexual assault can be physical, verbal (such as unwanted sexual remarks), or visual (such as someone showing you photos on their smartphone).
  • Coerced sex is not consensual sex. Sadly, people we know and trust are often the ones to use sexual coercion, the use of pressure, guilt, alcohol, drugs, or nonphysical force to get someone to do something sexual that they don't want to do. A boyfriend who repeatedly begs his girlfriend to have sex with him when he knows she doesn't want to is using coercion. This is a form of sexual assault.
  • It may not be easy to find the moments when your kids will talk about these things, but everyday situations can help. Share information on healthy relationships and staying safe while dating with them, too. This may feel like a tough assignment, but you just may fuel a great discussion the next time your kids' friends come over. Ultimately, prevention of sexual assault is possible when boys and girls know how to build healthy relationships.

    This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. To learn more about the NSVRC and how you can help prevent sexual violence, visit here. Read all posts in the series here.