With the flood of news available through social media on a daily basis, most kids and teens have probably had exposure to events surrounding the #MeToo movement and recent high profile sexual harassment cases. Parents can use this as an opportunity to talk to kids about these topics, in an age appropriate way.
Understandably, this can be challenging and overwhelming, especially with tweens and young children. Parents can start by asking what their child has heard and help sort through their questions and ideas in a safe environment. This should not be a single conversation, but rather an ongoing dialogue that develops and can be revisited as kids get older. Below are tips on how to navigate the conversation.
Keep it developmentally appropriate
The foundation of appropriate and prosocial behavior can be taught at any age. Respect, empathy, and understanding are ideas that even young kids can start to grasp, with the right examples. Without getting into more specific content about sexual misconduct, this is an opportunity to help young children build the foundation of personal boundaries and respect their own and others’ bodies.
For both girls and boys entering the age of romantic relationships, take this time to talk about healthy relationships, emphasizing that someone should never feel uncomfortable or ashamed in a relationship. Help them learn the distinction between appropriate and inappropriate conduct as they navigate the new world of romantic encounters.
Define the terms
Older kids need to know: what does sexual harassment actually mean? Explain that it can include more than unwanted physical behaviors, and includes verbal behavior, cyber behavior, as well as nonverbal behavior, e.g., gestures. You can also discuss the difference between sexual harassment, sexual abuse and/or forced sexual interactions.
Kids and even young teens can have trouble thinking about abstract concepts, and they often need some help learning to take others’ perspectives. Try to make conversations concrete when possible, and try to elicit their own emotions by placing them in the situation. For example, “How would you feel if ____________ happened to you?”(Remember to keep this question developmentally appropriate). “What is something you could do in that situation, or if you saw this happen to someone else? Who could you talk to?”
Teach them to speak up and be a safe adult
One of the most crucial aspects of talking to kids about these issues is to cultivate is a sense of empowerment that they can take action against an injustice and report concerning behavior. Parents can share how both girls and boys can be assertive, whether they are the victim or the bystander. There are ways for bystanders to inform authorities about any sexual misconduct they witness and California Whistleblower Law should protect them from any potential repercussions. Children and teens may feel speaking up has consequences too. You can explore who trusted adults are, how they can have the conversations, and how to handle any backlash from being assertive and doing the right thing, including why courage is important and valued.
Expand your discussion to daily experiences
Many of the situations that have gained media attention are reports of severe behavior, such as assault and rape. But often, the minor offenses are the ones that teens might encounter in their own lives, such as offensive jokes, disrespectful comments, or uncomfortable behaviors in the context of peer relationships. Without the understanding of what is appropriate, these sometimes subtle acts can send the message that this behavior (and worse) is acceptable.
Try to avoid pre-emptively blaming or lecturing. Instead, approach these topics from a place of care. In general, one of the most important things you can do with your kids is to listen! Set aside time to hear what’s going on in their lives and their concerns or struggles, and these sensitive conversations may develop naturally. If you limit questions and lend a listening ear, you may get much more information and help build a trusting relationship.
Sexual Harassment and Sexual Bullying (Nemours KidsHealth.org)
Teaching young kids the “Underwear Rule,” good touch, bad touch, and secrets
Teach your child skills to prevent sexual abuse
Say Something Anonymous Reporting System
Information about school and community programs, books on bullying, how to report child abuse, and many other resources
Proactive, quality ways to spend time with your kids