Toss the phrase “national conversation” into the ether these days and it’s abundantly clear you’re referring to the explosion of sexual harassment and sexual assault claims in entertainment, media, politics, and beyond. While the daily reveal of perpetrators has abated somewhat, what hasn’t stopped is the energy driving the conversation, as well as the analyses and proposed remedies by lots of folks.
As a parenting coach and champion of children, however, my interest is singular: How do we turn this national conversation into teachable moments for our kids?
There are several vital issues to establish upfront. First is the understanding that any time there is a power differential between people, the potential for harassment and abuse exists. With children, however, this imbalance is profoundly predatory. Kids simply aren’t skilled discerners about inappropriate adult behavior and they tend to trust the words – and follow the instructions of – adults.
Second, it’s essential to not assume the binary that it’s always a male predator and female victim. Sexual harassment and abuse is applicable to both boys and girls, no matter where they fall on gender and sexuality spectrums.
Third, the current conversation isn’t about “stranger danger.” Perpetrators of sexual abuse against kids are generally known to their victims; a personal relationship with an abuser may, in fact, make abuse more probable.
While not every adult in authority is creep-worthy, the list of possible predators is, sadly, broad. It include parents, stepparents, older relatives, teachers, coaches, scout leaders, babysitters, adults in religious, community and other family-centered organizations, camp counselors, workers in the home, friends’ parents, older students and members of law enforcement.
No parents can bear to imagine their child might one day be a victim. If you ever find yourself face-to-face with this horror, your foremost job will be to create a supremely safe environment for your child to talk about it without shame or fear. You will need to take time to process your rage and fear, as well as reach out to therapeutic, legal and law enforcement resources. But first, your child will need you in these very particular ways:
· Stay calm and present.
· Be an active listener.
· Ensure he or she feels heard – and believed.
· Have as many conversations about it as your child wants and initiate them when you sense there may be more they need to share.
· Assure them with absolute certainty that you take their experiences seriously and that you are there for them 100% – even if you don’t have all the answers in the moment.
· Express admiration for the courage to share their story.
· Above all, let them know you’re going to keep them safe and that you will get them the help they need.
Since it’s almost impossible for most kids not to have heard something about this story, I’d encourage parents to have teachable-moment conversations with your kids (of most ages) that can both shore up previous discussions you’ve likely already had about staying safe, as well as give them an opportunity to share their feelings and ask questions. Here are a few pointers:
Young primary school-agers are likely not aware of the current societal reckoning, but it’s wise to gently and regularly talk to them about the basic rules of safety.
With tweens, I’d address several topics. First, they need to understand unequivocally that their body is private. No one has the right to touch them in a way that makes them uncomfortable – even if the touching is innocuous or acceptable by other people’s standards. Encourage them to trust their intuition; if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
Another fact your tween needs to understand is that responsible adults – whether strangers or adults known to them – always respect the boundary between themselves and children. Reiterate that responsible adults never look to children for help, or ask them to keep secrets from their parents, or threaten them or their families. Given the viral spread of the news and the #metoo conversation on social media, most teenagers are aware of what’s been going on, have likely talked about it with peers and it may even have been a topic in the classroom. At home, it can be a springboard for conversations that confirm sexual flirtation from adults is never okay, about not blaming the victim and reminding them that if they see something, say something.
Have some sort of safe code with your kids that clearly communicates that they’re in trouble and need an out. For example, if my kids were in a situation they were uncomfortable with and wanted my help or a ride home, they knew they could text me “911” and I’d pick them up immediately.
Most importantly, let your children know that it’s never too late for them to talk to you about something that may have happened in the past. Don’t for a second think it’s an invasion of their privacy if you probe when it’s obvious by your kids’ behavior that something is wrong. Without doubt, if your child has been victimized, it is manifesting in some way.
Our job as parents is to keep our kids safe. We do that most effectively by paying attention to them and their lives and not letting our concerns go unaddressed. We tell our kids all the time to trust their guts when something doesn’t feel right. As parents, let’s do the same.