Teen sexual harrassment: Starting a dialog with your daughter

Teen sexual harrassment tips for talking to your daughter. Feel awkward, but be brave and talk about it, anyway.

AP Photo/Eric Risberg
Sheila Pott, mother of Audrie Pott who committed suicide after a sexual assault, stands by a photograph of her daughter and message board during a news conference April 15, in San Jose, Calif.

Recently I attended a fundraiser for the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC). The event was held in a residential home in an affluent, highly-educated community in the 'burbs. The conversation started politely enough with easy questions about the size of the organization and how long it’s been in business.

In the wake of Steubenville (the rape in Ohio of a teenaged girl by her peers, who posted it on social media) and too many similar heinous stories like it, it didn’t take too long before parents jumped right into the heart of what was on their mind – how we can ensure my daughter is safe, when she walks out the door for school or to go to a friend’s house or on a date or attends a party. And how exactly do we talk to our kids about sexual harassment, assault and rape.

What was clear that night is that parents deeply want to have these conversations with their daughter, but are confused (or…even a little clueless) as to how to traverse the complexities of this topic as their little ones become middle school and high school preteen and teens.

As one parent said to me in a sidebar, “How can I have this conversation with my daughter. She often seems annoyed when I ask how her day was?”

A few days after the event, I met with a mom and a survivor and I learned a lot. (Thank you Sarah!) As it turns out, starting a conversation with our daughters doesn’t have to be nearly as scary or complicated as we make it out to be. Here’s a cheat sheet from Sarah and others to get you started:

This is not a conversation about sex. Melissa Gopnik, Director of BARCC said this to me last week and I loved it so much I want to say it again: “This is not a conversation about your kids having sex. Sexual harassment and violence is about kids getting hurt not having sex.”

Don’t blame the victim. Let’s state the obvious right up front. The victim is not to blame. Ever. If a teen is the victim of harassment or sexual assault, here is a list of information that you don’t need to know: what type of clothing she wears, what his sexual orientation is, whether she “flirts,” if she engages in consensual sexual activity, if she drinks alcohol, etc. We have to all agree on this as a baseline to keep our daughters safe. Remember harassment and assault is not about having sex, it’s wrong (and illegal) and is about kids getting hurt (sometimes devastatingly so). Period.

Use anatomically correct language. If you don’t call a nose “a sniff-sniff” to your teenage daughter… (You don’t, right?) use the “real” words when talking about all parts of the anatomy – like vagina, penis, etc…

Be a listener not a lecturer. The No. 1 reason sexual harassment and assault are so underreported are that kids fear that they won’t be listened to. Or, worse yet, that they won’t be believed or will be blamed. Never intimate that a survivor is remotely culpable for the harassment or assault.

Use language that reflects their experiences. Be direct, specific, and relevant. I made the mistake of asking Melissa how to discuss “date rape” with preteen and teen girls. She schooled me pretty quickly (but ever so graciously). As it turns out, research shows the term “date rape” is personally not relatable to many middle schoolers. And although should be discussed, may not be specific enough for even high schoolers. In other words, if a girl is groped in the hallway or taunted with sexual obscenities on the bus, she won’t connect this violation to date rape. She doesn’t believe what you are asking about sexual violence applies to her.

Remember this is an on-going conversation. Parents and caregivers often express feeling anxious about engaging in “a BIG talk.” Start to think about this discussion as on-going conversation. Molly, the host of the fundraising event I attended, explained it well, “these are conversations that occur over months, maybe years, often in small doses – especially with younger kids." You can begin what you consider to be a really intense conversation when your daughter asks you a question. And then when she’s had enough, she will walk away, grab an apple, and go read a novel. That’s the way it works.

Feel awkward, but be brave and talk about it anyway.  Use this series as a place to begin the conversation. We are going to get really detailed to help you. And guess what? Research on pre-teens shows that what is important to kids is not what their parents say, but that they cared enough to talk about it at all. In other words, just talking about this tough subject is what your preteen will appreciate. The only mistake you can make is NOT saying anything at all! Remember, you can always go back to make another point or even ask for a redo.

What You Can Do  - Take 5 Actions

1.) Start with the conversation opener below if you like or use your own words. Use a calm voice. Add your own parenting style and what works best with your daughter. I personally like to use self-deprecating humor to diffuse the awkwardness. That’s different than joking about or making light of the topic. Remember this is an on-going conversation. Be thoughtful but don’t put too much pressure on yourself. There are many opportunities for re-do’s and continuing the conversation. Research shows your daughter will appreciate the effort even if it is awkward and imperfect. I found this link of talking points extremely helpful.

Conversation starter: I was reading a blog about preteen and teen sexual harassment. It talked about how kids are being hurt during school and in other situations by sexual harassment. Some of the examples it gave were: Unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures, physical touching like touching girls’ breasts, a boy rubbing his penis against a girl’s buttocks, sending texts or posting messages with derogatory language or spreading a sexual rumor about a girl. It’s hard for parents to believe that this happens in school or in general but I know it does. So, I am checking in to see if you have ever seen or experienced anything like this at school.

(Be as specific as possible and use examples if you have them – see the previous blog for one example of a “gauntlet” in a school hallway.)

Conversation Wrap up: I care deeply about how you feel in school and in the world in general. So let me state the obvious. You deserve to feel safe at school and no one, not anyone – ever has a right, no matter what – to say things or touch you in a way that makes you feel scared or uncomfortable. Even if they say they are “joking." It’s not funny to hurt someone. It’s about showing respect to you and everyone. If you are ever harassed, I want you to know that you can talk to me about it and we can figure it out together. Or if you are not comfortable talking to me, then we will identify another trusted adult that you can talk to.

2.) If you haven’t already, e-mail or call your daughter’s school and simply ask for a copy of their sexual harassment policy. See our first blog of this series for a sample email. 

3.) Look for the next installment in the series on FB or by signing up for our regular tips and updates. Q&A with a clinician who specializes in working with survivors of sexual assault. She will help us continue by giving suggestions about what we should do if our daughter is harassed or assaulted. It will also include advice from our teen advisors.

Thanks again Melissa Gopnik, Director at The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (www.barcc.org). Also special thanks to Molly Wong who opened up her home and started this conversation within own community.  And to Sarah, Julia Bluhm, and others who have been open and authentic in sharing their stories. In addition to Melissa, we will be gaining input from other experts in the field including: Miranda Horvath @miranda_horvath and Amy Jussel @shapingyouth. Thank you Miranda and Amy for your work and expertise!

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