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How to Talk to Children About Sexual Harassment

November 17, 2017

Talking about sex isn’t easy for anyone. For parents, even the idea of talking to kids about sex is uncomfortable. But today we find ourselves in the painful position of having to talk to kids about sexual harassment, and the kind of inappropriate behavior that has become a staple of the news lately. Some of what’s being reported is, frankly, awful.

So it’s tempting to avoid talking about it. But that’s a mistake. The number one thing I would tell parents is do not ignore it. That will not make it go away.

If you don’t talk to children — even young children — about what’s in the news, it’s very likely that somebody else is talking to them about it. If your children haven’t asked you about it, they may be uncomfortable bringing up what they’ve heard. This is embarrassing stuff, for them as well as you. It can be awkward for them — but not asking questions can easily lead to secret and unhelpful misconceptions.

So what’s your approach? It depends on how old they are. But, in general: answer questions, elicit their thoughts, and then share your own thoughts and values.

Find out what they’ve heard first — from friends, TV, newspapers, social media. At a time when you’re catching up and talking about your day, I’d ask them what they’ve heard in broad terms about, say, men behaving in insulting ways to women, or older men approaching teenage girls — whatever it is they are likely to be hearing. First, you want to listen, to encourage them to tell you what they’ve heard and ask any questions they might have.

Then, answer their questions. Your goal is to give them the facts, in an age-appropriate way. Don’t be salacious, but don’t shirk from details if they ask about them. Avoiding the facts doesn’t protect kids from painful things. It leaves them vulnerable to fantasies that kids use to fill in the blanks when adults aren’t forthcoming. What they imagine can be worse than the real thing.

Then, talk about what they think about it.

And finally, use the opportunity to tell them what you think.

Your goal in these discussions is to give them a frame of reference to think about disturbing events. In these situations, it reassures kids if you tell them what you think is right and wrong. And it helps them to know that when bad things happen, we do things to make sure they won’t happen again.

In the case of the kind of sexual harassment we’ve been hearing about, it’s also an opportunity to talk about appropriate behavior. When is it okay to touch another person? What does it mean to get permission — and to deny permission? How can we respect other people — their bodies, their space, their wishes?

It’s also an opportunity to talk about when it’s right, or important, to speak up about something that happened to you, especially if it’s embarrassing or frightening. Remind them that no matter what happens you always want to hear about their concerns and thoughts.

On we have detailed resources to help parents talk to kids about how to handle unwanted sexual attention, about the importance of consent in sexual activity, and about how to help younger children set and respect boundaries.

This is not easy. But the national conversation about sexual harassment is an important one, and this is an important teachable moment. We hope that these resources will allow you to help children build a strong and confident sense of how we want them to behave. And this conversation can start an ongoing dialogue with your children that will benefit all of you immensely.

Tagged with: In The News, Sex and Gender
Harold S. Koplewicz, MD
Harold S. Koplewicz, MD
Harold S. Koplewicz, MD, is the founding President and Medical Director of the Child Mind Institute and is a senior … Read Bio