Sexual harassment is, unfortunately, a wide-spread topic these days. Accusations and admissions are breaking news and it seems every aspect of the world is affected in some way. Many of us think this an adult issue, but our children are seeing these stories, too. It is critical parents talk about the issue with them in an age-appropriate manner.
The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are incredibly important and the people behind them are working to change how harassment and abuse are handled to make sure victims have a voice and are treated properly. As we are learning from the tragic examples at Michigan State University and in USA Gymnastics, this is not an adult-only issue. Schools across the country (and world) are taking measures to watch for and prevent sexual harassment on campuses where they might not have given it as much thought previously.
Experts encourage parents to have multiple conversations with their children, both their boys and girls, to make sure the future holds a brighter, safer path for everyone. Everything in the news can be used as a teachable moment to make a lasting difference. According to a study by Science Daily in 2016, one in four middle school students say they have experienced verbal or physical sexual harassment at school. The Harvard Graduate School of Education completed the Make Caring Common Project and it concluded that sexual harassment is pervasive among young adults. However, 76 percent of more than 3,000 young adults interviewed had never had a conversation with their parents about sexual harassment, misogyny or mature relationships. It is important for boys to understand what is and is not acceptable behavior and for girls and boys to understand how to handle a situation if they experience or witness sexual harassment.
For young children (ages 4–7):
This is a tough conversation because it is possible you have not had “the talk” with your child yet. Only talk about sexual harassment if your child brings it up at this stage. It helps to ask open-ended questions to get them talking and help you understand what they have seen or heard. Narrow down the conversation from there. Ask questions like, “Where did you learn that phrase?” “What else did you hear?” “What do you think it is?” “Why do you think that?” and “How did it make you feel to hear that?” These can go a long way to guide the conversation you need to have with them.
Teach them about the news and how we learn about important events around the world. Make sure they understand it is always OK to ask questions about a topic. Often, young children sense adults are angry or upset and can feel like it is their fault. You can always reassure them that even though you might be upset, you are not angry or upset with them.
Always make sure your child knows the difference between good touches and bad touches. When it comes to harassment, some experts suggest keeping the conversation more general about bullying and the right or wrong way to treat people. This way, the conversation can start from a very young age and revolves around human values in relation to others. It can also help frame the conversation around boundaries — their bodies are their own and no one has the right to talk about or touch their bodies in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable.
Do not over explain the topic to them. Use words they are used to hearing. An example might be, “Sexual harassment is like bullying, only the bully is talking about or trying to touch your body without your permission.”
For children in the middle
Technology is integrated throughout a child’s life, at this point, and it can lead to harassment being amplified. Not only can it happen in-person, but, now, it can continue through social media and the victim never gets a break. With that in mind, parents should have frequent conversations with their children about boundaries within relationships and that power has nothing to do with threatening someone for personal gain.
It is at this age where the conversation can become more straight forward. Things like peer pressure, consent and voluntary activity can be covered, as well as the important detail that consent for one thing does not mean consent for anything else. This is an opportunity to more-clearly define what sexual harassment is and what it is not.
This is also a good time to start asking questions about what they see and hear. What have they learned from watching the news? How do they feel about the topic? What do they think sexual harassment means when they hear about it? Have they ever seen anything happen at school that made them feel uncomfortable?
Unfortunately, this is also a time when your child might first experience or witness sexual harassment and it can be a difficult conversation to navigate. If your child shares an experience with you, try not to ask too many questions right away. Give them time to fully tell their story and talk about their reactions and feelings. This helps develop that level of trust where they are more willing to see you as the person they talk to first when they have questions.
Finally, it is a good idea to check with your child’s school to see what their sexual harassment policy is. What are their rules and remedies? What do they consider sexual harassment? What should students do if sexual harassment happens at their school? It can help to direct the conversation while helping your child learn what is and is not acceptable behavior in the larger social construct, not simply within your own family.
For teens (ages 13–18):
Start the discussion with teens about what it means to have a healthy romantic relationship. They are at the age where they are beginning to date and need guidance in learning to recognize the signs of a healthy or unhealthy relationship. They need to know relationships should never make them feel uncomfortable, scared, intimidated, ashamed or embarrassed. More importantly, healthy relationships should always include mutual respect. You can use examples from your own experiences, from family members or from those in your social circle to give them cues to look for in their own relationships.
Teens are also at the age where they can fully understand the definition of sexual harassment and understand that boys and girls can be harassed or be harassers. Things to include are:
• 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
No matter your child’s age, once they understand what sexual harassment looks like, encourage them to take action if it occurs to them or someone they know. They need to know they can call it what it is, write down the details of events and tell a trusted adult or report it to the school or authorities. Children should be affirmed that they have a voice and can use it to stop sexual harassment from happening. If everyone stands up for what is right, sexual harassment cannot be ignored or swept under the rug. It is vital the issue is dealt with quickly to help prevent it from becoming a pervasive occurrence.