How to Talk to Your Teens About Sexual Harassment  

harass lead image

Photo by Burcu Avsar

Photo by Burcu Avsar

With the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements dominating the headlines—practically on a daily basis—adults are suddenly finding themselves confronted with a long-overdue dialogue about sexual harassment. And thanks to social media, smartphones, TV, newspapers and magazines, word has reached our tweens and teens too. As a psychologist and a mom, I hate even thinking about the possibility that my kids—any kids—may encounter harassment. But just as adults are pulling sexually aggressive behavior out of the shadows, we need to do the same for our children. 

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Begin a Dialogue

Start by explaining that sexual harassment is just another form of bullying. While on the surface it seems to be about sex, it’s really about intimidation: an abuse of power with a sexualized twist. The goal of all bullying is to demean, degrade or dominate another person. And lobbing sexualized slurs or making unwanted advances happens to be a particularly potent way to accomplish just that. 

Ask your teens what they think of things they have observed on a daily basis, like the unequal treatment of women and men in the media (women are often half-dressed in ads while men get to keep their clothes on) and the misogynistic lyrics in some music. Help make them aware that incidents they may ignore or view as benign, like girls being called “sluts” or “hos,” fall under sexual harassment—even if the person using those words defends him- or herself by insisting it’s funny or saying they were only joking around. What is not a laughing matter is how it can desensitize us to being treated in a sexual way. And having this kind of mind-set accepted as OK may lead to other inappropriate behaviors later on. 

Still, it’s important to remember that this is a time when teens are exploring their own thoughts and feelings on flirting, romance and sexuality. We don’t want to make them fearful of these very important, joyous and healthy parts of life. What we do want is to make them mindful of their behavior and that of others around them. We want them to feel grounded and in control. We also want them to have a voice and know how to use it confidently, without fear.

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The Parental Role

Talking about the sexualized abuse of power isn’t easy, and it certainly shouldn’t be a one-time thing. Like any other important conversation we need to have with our kids—about sex, drugs, smoking/vaping, alcohol, social media—the dialogue should evolve as a child’s exposure to the world deepens, especially when they eventually go off to college and have internships and first jobs. Your goal in these early talks is to establish and maintain an open line of communication. As with any delicate topic, follow your kids’ lead. If they’re eager to chat, ask them what they want to know. They may just want to discuss those “gray areas” that leave plenty of room for confusion. 

It’s also OK to admit that you don’t have all the answers and are sometimes figuring things out as you go along. (While sexist and wrongful behavior by adults is finally getting some attention, there is still so much we’re all working to understand.) What’s most important is that you let your teens know they can always speak up and confide in you, even if they are not sure whether something was actually harassment but still felt uncomfortable, or they saw or heard about something that made them uneasy on someone else’s behalf.

If they seem reticent, say, “I know this isn’t an easy topic. I’m ready to talk about it when you are.” Acknowledge that adults sometimes fail to step in when harassment happens, or respond in ways that make matters worse. Sometimes we too are unsure or don’t always recognize it ourselves. Adults may wave away indecent behavior by saying that “boys will be boys” or blame the victim by asking what they did to provoke it. 

Let your kids know you’re open to talking about anything they’re seeing at school or dealing with themselves. Finally, assure them that you won’t make them regret raising the issue by promising to talk to them first before taking action.

They Have Choices

Daily headlines about aggressive, inappropriate behavior should be a wake-up call to us all to clearly define for our kids how they should—and should not—expect to be treated. We can tell our daughters and sons that no one is allowed to speak to them, touch them or communicate with them digitally in a way that makes them uncomfortable. If that happens, they should not hesitate to voice that they are uncomfortable or reach out for help if they feel threatened by an interaction or encounter. 

Young people should be reminded that even in dating relationships boundaries can be crossed. We know from studies (and anecdotal stories) that teens can find themselves in romances where they are pressured by a partner to share nude photos or coerced into doing other things. Though this is more likely to happen to girls, boys deal with offensive behavior too. Remind your teens that they should never feel pressured by a boyfriend or girlfriend to do anything they don’t want to do. 

Empower them to speak up for themselves and others. If they see something, they should say something. Explain and reinforce that it falls to the bystanders who witness (or overhear or are confided in about) the harassment—sexual or otherwise—to step in. We should say to our kids, “If you are there when someone else is being harassed, you need to do something. You could confront the kid who is crossing a line, reach out to the person who is being harassed or, at a minimum, let an adult know.”

We can thank the #MeToo movement for bringing a critical, if difficult, topic out into the open. Although these conversations can be awkward, they allow us to remind our kids that it’s not all grim. Romance is one of the best parts of life—not something they should be afraid of. 

We want them to have healthy love lives as adults. And we can point them down that path by using this opportunity to also discuss the seeds of those relationships—their crushes, flirtations and early romances—in terms of kindness and respect. 

For more information, try these helpful links.

About Our Expert

Lisa Damour, PhD

Photo courtesy of Lisa Damour, PhD

Photo courtesy of Lisa Damour, PhD

Psychologist Lisa Damour, PhD, lives in Shaker Heights, OH, with her husband and their two daughters. She is the author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood.