How to Talk to Teens about Sexual Harassment
Lately, the news and media are reporting a great deal about sexual harassment, and you may be wondering what your teenager knows and understands about this subject. First of all, even if you think you have sheltered your teen from the reports – perhaps by not watching the news on TV – you should know that your teen has definitely heard about it. The news is all over social media and is being discussed in school.
Unfortunately, the topic is too sensitive and the allegations are too significant to just let our children figure it out for themselves. In addition, what your teen hears from the media and their peers is not always true and very likely does not align with your values. As a result, this is an excellent time to have a conversation with your teen about sexual harassment, and even more broadly, about how to treat other people and what is morally right and wrong. While these types of discussions can feel uncomfortable to bring up, sharing your values with your teen, and correcting any misinformation they might believe, is very important as your teen matures into adulthood. Here are some tips and ideas for what to discuss with your teen about this topic:
Define sexual harassment.
As a first step in your conversation, make sure that your teen has a full understanding of what sexual harassment is. Many teen girls and boys have two common misperceptions: 1) only a boy can harass a girl, not vice versa, and 2) sexual harassment only refers to physical harassment. Be sure to tell your teen that girls can harass boys as well, and give them a full list of the ways sexual harassment manifests, including:
- Unwanted behavior, such as stalking or repeatedly asking someone on a date when they’ve already said no
- Verbal harassment, such as sexual comments, catcalls or jokes, or starting rumors about someone
- Cyber harassment, such as sexual comments in emails, text messages, or social media posts
- Threats to a person’s safety, reputation, or employment if they do not engage in a sexual activity
- Physical harassment, such as unwanted touching or kissing
Once you have given them a clearer understanding of what sexual harassment is, your teen should hear from you that harassment is never acceptable, no matter who you are or the situation you are in. If every teen hears this message, then their generation may be much better behaved than the previous one.
One important element of discussing sexual harassment is ensuring that your teen does not become a victim of it, nor a perpetrator. You should be teaching teens about boundaries and power. Tell your teen that all relationships – whether personal, familial, or professional – need boundaries. Be sure to communicate that no one – not family, neighbors, friends, not even doctors – can touch them without their permission or threaten them if they don’t do something the other person wants. But in addition, be sure to tell them that they must listen to others’ “no” as well. Let them know that power is not about dominating another person or threatening them for personal gain. This is morally wrong and infringes on other people’s rights. Tweens and teens need to understand that, even in a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship, they must give and get permission to initiate anything sexual — from talking to touching.
Tell your teen that if they ever feel like they are being harassed, they should tell a trusted adult. If that adult doesn’t do anything, they should tell another trusted adult. They should also jot down notes about the harassment including when and where it happened, if others were present, and what was said and done.
Create open discussions.
As you may have noticed, teens often enjoy sharing their opinions and grappling with ethical dilemmas reported in the news. Rather than avoiding these types of controversial topics, creating an atmosphere of open dialogue will help your teen. Experts point to the following benefits:
- Asking open-ended questions that allow your teen the opportunity to give their perspective on what they see happening helps them learn to articulate their opinions and feelings, which is an important developmental step on the road to adulthood.
- Showing interest in your teen’s opinions demonstrates respect, which improves their self-worth and also the likelihood that they will be more respectful to others.
- Discussing controversial topics helps youth develop the ability to see different points of view.
- Discussing how we obtain news and who is distributing that information helps teens develop critical thinking skills.
- Sharing your values helps teens to develop their own values and perspectives.
So now that you see the benefits of having an open conversation with your teen about this issue, here are some tips for how to talk about it:
Ask questions and listen. Draw teens out by asking open-ended questions and then listening to their answers without judgment or commenting. You might try asking:
- What have you heard and/or think about the sexual harassment reports?
- What do your friends think of the reports?
- Why do you think these reports are such a big deal?
- How are boys and girls treating each other at school?
Examine cultural norms communicated by the media. Popular media can give teens the wrong idea about boys’ and girls’ roles in relationships. Examine different movies or TV shows – both old and current – to compare stereotypes and attitudes about gender roles.
Compare how different media outlets cover the same story. It is important for teens to be able to critically evaluate news sources. Take some time to look at different media, ranging from your teen’s favorite social media to late-night comedy shows to traditional news channels. Point out the different headlines the media uses to “hook” their audience. Discuss the way each source tailors the story to reach a specific audience. Ask your teen which one seems like a legitimate source and why. Point out that news is supposed to be objective, but often the author’s perspective can creep into a story just through word choice.
Discuss commentaries and bias. Another important issue for teens to understand is the difference between news reporters and commentators. The internet is full of opinions and comments. You should teach your teen how to recognize the difference, and also point out that people can reinforce their own biases when they only read opinions that validate their point of view. Opinion pieces offer a chance for teens to consider how issues can be divisive and emotional. Understanding others’ viewpoints is an important step toward maturity and finding common ground, so it’s a good idea to use others’ comments to talk about the issue. You might ask:
- Do you agree with their opinion? Why or why not?
- How would you talk with this person in real life?
- Is it possible to have a dialogue with people who disagree with you online?
One of our jobs as parents is teaching and role modeling what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in terms of how you treat others. In addition to making sure you discuss these topics with your teen, parents should always consider what their relationships are communicating to their children. In particular, the way you treat your spouse and allow your spouse to treat you is a powerful example that children use to measure their future relationships.