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Explaining sexual assault to your kids

Posted October 19, 2016

With recent accusations of sexual assault leveled against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump after the leak of a 2005 audio clip in which Trump boasted of inappropriately kissing and touching women, many parents may be faced with questions from their children about what sexual assault is.

We asked Dr. Steven Schlozman, Massachusetts General Hospital child psychiatrist and Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds associate director, to explain what parents should and should not do when their children ask them about sexual assault.

Don’t avoid the conversation

Probably the worst thing parents can do in this situation, Schlozman said, is to not discuss assault, even if their children are too young to fully understand it.

In the digital age, even for very young children, “I’ll tell you when you’re older” isn’t a viable option anymore, and avoiding the topic may actually create a problem for kids.

“If you say, ‘We’re not going to talk about that,’ kids will imagine things that are pretty awful,” Schlozman said. “They’ll pick up on your anxiety and imagine something awful and scary — something so awful even their parents can’t handle it.”

Clearly define 'consent'

A crucial part of helping children understand sexual assault is to explain consent to them. That sounds complicated, but Schlozman said it doesn’t have to be.

If your children are small, it’s enough to explain to them that consent means permission, just as they ask parents for permission to do things all the time.

“The key part for little kids is somebody doing mean things that they didn’t have permission to do, and it hurt them,” Schlozman said. “They get that. Kids know the world isn’t always a nice place.”

You can even tell older children exactly what to say in those situations to prepare them, Schlozman said.

“There are rules for being with someone in a natural way. Tell them straight up, even if you’re doing something simple like holding someone’s hand, it’s OK to ask them first,” Schlozman said. “It sounds corny, but I can’t imagine that line not working for anyone involved. It’s sweet and earnest and you’re making sure you’re not screwing up.”

Some parents may worry about talking to their teenagers, especially about consent, if they don’t want their teens to be sexually active. Schlozman said it’s still good to discuss consent in those cases, because young people need guidance forming their own moral compasses that align with their families' values.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever sat with anybody who said, ‘I had sex and wish I’d done it sooner.’ Usually, they say they wish they’d waited,” Schlozman said. “It’s an interesting and sometimes tough thing to have gone through and it’s that much worse if they don’t have a firm grasp of consent.”

Explore multiple points of view

It might be tempting to tailor the discussion to your child’s gender, such as telling girls that boys “only want one thing” or boys that women may lie about being assaulted. But Schlozman advises against ugly generalizations, arguing that if parents really want their kids to understand, they have to explain it from both points of view.

“It may be useful to tell girls, for example, that in our society boys are still applauded by their peers for getting a girl to consent, but I think if we only say that to girls, we demonize sexuality and we don’t teach them that boys can also be uncomfortable about these things,” Schlozman said. “People are people. At the end of the day, we want to make sure people can be comfortable being around each other.”

Explain the problem without imparting fear

The prospect of being assaulted is terrifying for anyone, but it might be even scarier for children who are just starting to become interested in the opposite sex or who are starting to date.

Schlozman said it’s important for parents to clearly lay out how to be safe in a relationship without demonizing the other gender or making children afraid.

“You don’t want to scare ... them. It’s not healthy for kids to think the world is inherently a dangerous place,” Schlozman said. “They’re going to remember that discussion. It’s not always pleasant, but it’s good to do it.”

Try to keep politics out of it

While children begin life emulating their parents and their parents’ beliefs, they will more than likely rebel against those beliefs later on.

So even in instances where important political figures like Trump are the reason the conversation came up, it’s important to divorce the problem from any political fervor that may be attached. Saying something like, “Republicans think assault is OK” or “Those women are just lying to smear Republicans” is not only a false generalization; it confuses the issue for children.

“Teens especially have a propensity to take opposite side of parents just because,” Schlozman said. “You may not even be thinking about politics when you talk about this, but if you mention it, you’ve lost the point you’re trying to get across. Because tempers are so high, if you don’t mindfully put that aside, it’ll come out.”

It’s much better, Schlozman said, to talk about the specific issue or incident at hand, even if it is tied somehow to politics.

“You can tell them, 'I’ve made it clear how I feel about this election, but that’s not what I’m talking about here,'" Schlozman said. “You can say, ‘I support Donald Trump, but I don’t support what he said there.'"

Watch for mixed messages

What’s said under your roof isn’t the only message children get about sexual assault. They’re likely hearing much more at school, online and even in church. Schlozman said that’s why it’s good to keep discussing these issues with kids when they come up, so they can continue to be guided by your individual family’s values.

“Find out what the school is telling them also and know if those things don’t align with what you’re saying,” Schlozman said. “It’s so much better to have the discussion than having someone out there without an explicit understanding of what their parents’ values are so they can square it for themselves.”

Email: chjohnson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: ChandraMJohnson

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