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Experts share 5 tips for talking to your kids about sexual harassment and assault

INSIDER logoINSIDER 4/18/2019 Leah Rocketto
a little boy that is standing in the grass © Shutterstock

The following article frankly discusses the subject of sexual abuse and may be troubling for some readers. We are running it as part of a Microsoft News Causes campaign tied with Sexual Abuse Awareness Month. If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area. Additional resources information and links are also available on RAINN.

  • With stories of sexual harassment and assault dominating headlines, it's important for adults to discuss the topic with children.
  • From using terms kids will understand to turning to pop culture as an aid, here are some expert tips on how to get the conversation going.

In October 2017, the New York Times released a report in which Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexual harassment, assault, and rape. The accounts, some of which came from A-list actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie, were horrifying and heartbreaking. They also served as a catalyst for many other women to come forward with their stories of sexual harassment and assault at the hands of other Hollywood bigshots.

Since then, many more powerful, popular men have been accused of sexual misconduct.

Harvey Weinstein wearing a black shirt © Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

The immense coverage of sexual assault and harassment, while important, can be difficult to handle. Fans pick up the pieces of their shattered image. Victims of sexual assault find the news triggering. Family and friends try to make sense of someone they love doing something so "out of character."

And then you have kids, who are likely hearing this news, but not quite understanding the magnitude and meaning. They may come to you with questions and, rather than brush them off, you should be prepared to answer them. Not only to educate them on sexual assault and harassment, but to prevent them from being victims or perpetrators.

"If no one intervenes [at a young age], how are they ever going to know that's not OK?" Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and author of "13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don't Do," told INSIDER.

Here are some tips from experts on talking to your kids about sexual assault and harassment.

a group of people standing in front of a store © Drew Angerer / Staff

1. Set aside time to talk about it.

This is a heavy topic, and not one you want to spring on a child. Julia Simens, a clinical psychologist, told INSIDER that parents should find a time when "there aren't any stressors going on" and you won't be cut off too soon.

2. Use terms they understand.

Simplicity will be key when talking to children about sexual harassment and assault. Although many argue that you shouldn't downplay sex or use "cutesy" words for anatomy with children, you do have to speak to them in a way they'll understand. That starts with choosing the right words which, in this case, include bullying.

"I see sexual harassment as a subset of bullying," Jill Stanley, a former criminal defense lawyer and legal commentator, told INSIDER. "It's when someone who perceives themselves in a higher position of power and uses that to get their way."

Dr. Kathryn Stamoulis, a licensed mental health counselor who specializes in female adolescent sexuality, agreed, adding that using the term bullying, "might be helpful for parents who may feel uncomfortable."

3. Turn to pop culture as an aid.

When it comes to talk to older kids, Stamoulis suggested parents use pop culture to get the conversation going.

"If, for example, a parent hears the word slut on a show, I think that's a good jumping-off point," she said. "Ask them, 'What does that mean? Have you heard that said to someone else? How did that make them feel?' and explain that it's not alright to use."

4. Listen rather than speak.

During your talk, your child may tell you about a time they or someone they know was harassed. If this happens, it's important not to inundate them with questions. Donna Palomba, founder of the nonprofit advocacy group Jane Doe No More, said it's best to "just be there for them and let the conversation flow."

"One of the big things that we hear kids say is, 'I want to tell my mom something, but every time I open the door to a conversation, I get pummeled with questions,'" she told INSIDER. "Be attentive, listen, and don't ask a million questions."

5. Leave the door open for future conversations.

It's important that your child knows they can come to you about this at any time. But you can't just leave it on them.

As your child grows up, encounters and experiences with sexual misconduct may change. That's why it's imperative that you regularly have conversations with them.

"[Parents] have to hit it at different ages," Simens said. "You can't just do it once and say, 'finished with that.'"

It will never be easy to talk about sexual harassment, assault, and rape - especially with a child. But it is essential to changing the way we as a society view and handle the issue.

If you are a victim of sexual assault, you can visit RAINN or call its hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to receive confidential support from a trained staff member.

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