How to Address Sexual Harassment and Assault with Children

6 min read
Unsplash/Joshua Rawson-Harris

Source: Unsplash/Joshua Rawson-Harris

A majority of children will experience sexual harassment or assault in school by peers and educators. Parents are often unaware of these alarming statistics because their children (and schools) are not talking about it. As a clinical psychologist, I have found kids are unprepared for the harassment they will encounter as their bodies and sexuality develop. A Harvard survey found most young people reported they had never had a conversation with their parents about what sexual harassment is and how to avoid sexually harassing others. Parents often tell me they lack resources and/or feel awkward, but the topic is too important to forgo.

Harassing behaviors are often justified as part of growing up, but they’re associated with a host of serious outcomes, such as lower self-esteem, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, and academic problems. And they have far-reaching effects: harassment impacts the friends of victims who witness or hear about it, and victims often become perpetrators to continue the cycle of violence. By listening to our kids and helping them assess their level of discomfort with various incidents, they’ll learn to listen to their gut and be able to decide whether they want to call out future incidents, ask an adult to step in, or ignore them. They should hear, though, that ignoring persistent harassment is unlikely to make it stop, and that harassment and assault are difficult to process alone, even for adults.

Here are some tips to help prepare kids for what to expect:

Be explicit and share resources. Our kids want to hear from us.

Though we’re getting better as a culture about teaching kids about boundaries and bodily autonomy from a young age, we need to be more explicit about the nuances of consent and what constitutes coercion. Conversations around consent and unwanted touch or attention can happen at any age, but it’s best to begin in elementary school before kids reach puberty. We can get kids talking by asking them how students of different genders interact at school, such as whether boys make comments about girls’ bodies (or vice versa), call them names, make sexist or homophobic slurs, or grab body parts and yank clothes. While one instance of harassment may seem trivial in isolation, these psychological paper cuts accumulate becoming festering wounds of self-doubt.

Our kids want to hear from us, even though in the moment they may shoot us daggers with their eyes, fire cannonballs of sarcasm, or run for cover. About 60% of respondents in the Harvard survey reported their parents hadn’t discussed, for example, the “importance of not pressuring someone to have sex with you,” the “importance of not continuing to ask someone to have sex after they have said no,” or the importance of not having sex with “someone who is too intoxicated or impaired to make a decision about sex.” But encouragingly, those who did have these conversations with their parents said they’d been influential, and 70% reported wishing they’d received more information from their parents about romantic relationships, in general. So talk to your kids! Parents can better understand what kids want and need to know by seeking out and sharing age appropriate resources such as SASH Club’s Power Topics and Love is Respect.

Use everyday, teachable moments.

Instead of steamrolling our kids with information, we can seize on teachable moments from the news, media, or their everyday life. When a friend called asking what to do about overhearing her son and his friends using words like ‘ho’ and ‘thot’ (an acronym for “that ho over there”) I suggested stating in a neutral tone, “That language is sexist and we don’t demean any genders in our house.” When she approached him, he countered, “It’s no big deal. Even the girls laugh.” My friend replied, “They might. But there’s no reason girls’ sexuality should be demeaned while guys get high fives for theirs.” High five friend! We can wonder aloud why boys bond in that way and remind them sexist “jokes” influence how we think and behave toward girls, and that others may assume our jokes mean we approve of degrading or harassing girls. Though girls and LGBTQ+ people are more likely to be harassed, anybody—especially those who fall outside the traditional girl-boy binary—can be targeted.

Emphasize enthusiasm and pleasure.

While teaching consent is crucial, it isn’t enough. We give consent for a root canal, but that doesn’t mean we like it. What we really want our kids to look for and to feel themselves when it comes to engaging sexually, whether it’s flirting, commenting, touching, or sex—is enthusiasm and pleasure. We can tell them if their partner isn’t excited, they can’t follow their own excitement. It’s helpful to distinguish for them harassment from flirtation. Flirting requires tuning into someone else’s body language and desires, it goes both ways, and makes both parties feel good. Harassment is the opposite. It ignores what the other person wants or doesn’t want and makes them feel embarrassed, angry, helpless, or hopeless. The same goes for engaging sexually. To really know if their partner is genuinely enthusiastic, encourage them to live by the rule, “Don’t guess. Ask!” If they can’t discuss sex openly with their partners, they’re not ready to get physical.

Listen and let them know you won’t blame them.

Let your kids know they can always come to you either just to talk or to help resolve any problems with how they’re being treated. Make it clear you believe they’re not responsible for harassment or assault and will never make them regret coming to you.

Many of us are completely oblivious to the risks children face until something happens to one of our own. By listening to our kids, we can learn a lot about what they face day in and day out and help them understand that what seems like a normal way of relating is not unacceptable. It’s a slippery slope from gender bias and jokes to sexual harassment and assault. We can help interrupt the landslide by standing up against poor or unequal treatment early, no matter how small it may seem.

Stay Tuned for Part 2: How to Address Sexual Harassment and Assault After It Happens.

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