Bringing the headlines home: How to talk to your kids about sexual harassment

Bringing the headlines home: How to talk to your kids about sexual harassment

The topic is hard to avoid these days.

News of sexual harassment is dominating traditional and social media—making it hard to keep it away from children. Many parents are wondering if they should talk to their kids about this tough subject.

Dr. Sara Skinner, a doctoral clinical psychology resident with Advocate Health Care’s Childhood Trauma Treatment Program, provides some guidance.

Sexual abuse is not an easy topic to discuss with your children, but it should be included in the talks you are already having about safety.

From an early age, throughout adolescence and beyond, we should be encouraging respectful behavior and healthy boundaries. This topic will be discussed among peers at school and can lead to misconceptions and misinformation. Therefore, parents should introduce this important topic and be a resource for more information in the future.

Parents should work toward opening the lines of communication, which means offering a safe place for your child to share information, ask questions and be praised for doing so.

Start the conversation early. Parents should be teaching their children about their bodies from the start, including the names of their body parts and that their body is theirs to keep private. Knowing the correct name for their body parts makes it easier for a child to ask questions or express concerns, if necessary.

Make sure it is age appropriate. Consider your child’s age and ability to understand this sensitive information. You can talk in broader terms about what to do when dealing with harassment or bullying of any kind. As your children get older, your conversation can go more in depth.

Talk to girls and boys. This is not about being a male or a female. Boys and girls both need to be educated about what to do or say when they experience or witness sexual harassment.

Teach kids to say “no”. Teaching children they have the right to say “no” empowers them to have control over their body. Often, children are taught to be polite, but we should teach children that all people have the right to say no and will be supported in this decision. This includes something as simple as being able to say “no” when asked for a hug by another person.

Define sexual harassment. Teenagers may not know what is considered sexual harassment, and that it can happen to both boys and girls. Talk to them about different forms, including:

  • Verbal harassment: Jokes, cat-calls, rumors or comments
  • Cyber harassment: Posts on social media, texting and emails
  • Physical harassment: Unwanted touching, kissing or sexual acts
  • Nonverbal harassment: Gestures or writing sexually explicit things about someone
  • Unwanted behavior: Stalking or phone calls

As children get older and gain increasing independence, we begin to translate these topics to how various experiences can be navigated in the world.

Don’t just talk, listen
Ask for your child’s opinion on the latest headlines. Find out what your child’s thoughts, feelings and reactions are. Listen to them and value their perspective. Let your child ask you questions; this can help you gauge how much they already know.

If they share with you a time when they or someone they know was harassed, it is important to let them talk and not ask too many questions right away. Just be there for them and see where the conversation leads. Engaging with your child in this manner increases trust and opens gateway for communication. You want to be the first person they come to with questions. 

Continue the conversation
Let them know you are there to talk whenever they need it. But don’t put it solely on them. As your child gets older, their questions and experiences may change. Have regular conversations as they age.

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About the Author

Angela Hacke
Angela Hacke

Angela Hacke is the manager of public affairs for Advocate Charitable Foundation. She has more than 17 years of experience in communications, and has been with Advocate for the last 12 years. In her free time, she enjoys hanging out with her family, exercising and reading.