Talking to Our Children about Sexual Harassment & Assault
This past weekend, my 13-year-old daughter and friends went to a theme park with several parent chaperones. Less than hour after arriving, my daughter and her friends were walking through the park when a man came up behind them and groped one of the girls. Very upset and frightened, the girl who was assaulted told my daughter, and together the girls walked into the nearest gift shop and – of their own accord – asked to speak with the police. In spite of how scared they were, they talked to the parent chaperones, spoke with the police, and filed a police report. After filing the report, my daughter called me in tears and told me they were leaving the park. I was relieved they were on the way home and immensely proud of how they handled the situation.
For more than 20 years, I have worked with victims of sexual assault and harassment in various stages of my clinical training and practice. As an intern at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, I specialized in child and adolescent trauma. In a clinical setting, I have listened to more than 100 survivors of abuse. Sexual harassment and assault can happen anywhere, anytime, and to anyone.
For years, we have taught children and teenagers to speak up when something happens – to tell a trusted adult. I believe that we are now witnessing a powerful positive movement toward change that makes me hopeful for the next generation. The Me Too movement and courageous people like Dr. Christine Blasey Ford are making a very important difference. Last night, 13-year-old girls filed a police report at a theme park. I can’t imagine that happening when I was a teenager, and I am so grateful that they had the courage to speak up and that they believed and expected that they would be heard.
When my daughter got home last night, we all talked. While I listened, my 10-year-old son explained what was going on to my 4-year-old son, urging him to tell us right away if a “bad guy” ever tried to touch him. My 4-year-old asked, “What if it’s a nice guy who’s being mean?” Great question! We took the opportunity to talk about how predators may intentionally appear to be nice and friendly, but explained that it is always wrong for them to touch in this way and that is very important to speak up and get help as soon as possible.
As I reflected on our conversations, a few things stood out to me that I wanted to share with other parents:
· Most children and teenagers are at least partially aware of the Me Too movement and recent stories in the media. Take the opportunity to talk about the news and discuss what you’d want your children to do if they are faced with similar situations.
· Sexual abuse and harassment can happen anywhere, anytime, and to anyone. We need to talk to all children about the possibility to ensure that they know that it’s OK to speak up, and that we are here to listen, believe, and support them.
· Recognize the courage it takes to speak up and do the right thing even when justice is not guaranteed. Not every perpetrator will be caught and held accountable for his or her actions, but some will, and as more people speak out, I believe it will become harder for perpetrators to get away with this kind of behavior.
· As my 4-year-old pointed out, even people who seem nice might do something terrible. Remind your children that a perpetrator can be someone known to the family, even a close friend or relative. Remind them that it’s still not OK, and that they should always report it. Be prepared to listen and believe them when they do.
· If your child does stand up and speak up, make sure he/she knows how proud you are of this courageous choice. And don’t be afraid to reach out for help – contact a mental health professional in your area if you or your child have been affected by abuse.
Here are some suggested articles for further reading:
Let’s all hope that we can empower the next generation to be better than ours. They are off to a great start.