The many victims of Harvey Weinstein's decades-long pattern of behavior are finally speaking out. While his actions are deplorable, the fact that he was a public figure has pushed the issue of sexual harassment and assault into the public square. It's about time. Too many have suffered silently for far too long.
You have probably seen #MeToo written by someone you know and love. If you're like me, it has been dozens of people. This simple hashtag is giving a voice to the millions of women (and men) who have experienced some form of aggressive sexual activity by someone in power. We need to do all we can to give them a voice and to validate the gravity of their experiences. But what about the next generation?
How Can We Help Our Kids to Not be Another #MeToo Story?
Sex is hard enough to talk to our children about, much less having to deal with the horrifying possibility that someone could attempt to assault them. If we have done a poor job of discussing sex with our kids, it is likely we have lived in a fog of denial about the realities of child sexual abuse. Because of our discomfort, our kids may have been left vulnerable.
The statistics are hard to quantify (because so much abuse goes unreported), but we can be sure that incidences of child sexual abuse are on the rise. Beyond the fact that it is widespread, the personal trauma of abuse is also a heavy burden for a child to bear alone. Victims of child sexual abuse are often shamed into silence, afraid of the repercussions of disclosure.
Why do our children suffer in silence? We trust those closest to us—our family, friends, coaches and teachers—so it is most difficult to accept that the vast majority of abusers are people that the victim knows and trusts. The abuser often carries credibility in the parent’s life, so the child feels not only shame but also that they won’t be believed.
As we have seen in recent headlines, sexual assault can take many forms. Unfortunately, all types of abuse have the potential to negatively impact our kids’ perceptions of their God-given sexuality.
A Perpetrator’s Strategy
Perpetrators are cunning, manipulative and very patient to target their prey. They use a process called “grooming” to test the vulnerability of a child, building trust with the child and slowly preparing to overcome that child with sexual power.
Grooming happens in a number of ways. They may show the child extra attention or affirmation. The abuser may tickle, they may cuddle, wrestle, kiss or find other ways to make physical contact with the child. The inappropriate touch or action may appear as an accident. If the child says nothing, the second try may be followed by, “You liked it when I did that yesterday, let me try it again and show you how good it feels,” leaving the child confused, embarrassed and ashamed.
Some children are made to feel consensual in the act and may become paralyzed with fear. The perpetrator convinces the child that this is their secret, never to be told. Children are groomed by fear and intimidation and hear phrases like: “No one will believe you. If you tell I’ll hurt you, your mother, or your sister. If you tell you will be in a lot of trouble for what you have done.”
We may be confident that our children are smart and that they would not fall prey to this type of “grooming.” Or we might believe that our children would tell us if someone makes them feel uncomfortable or touches them inappropriately. Still, if we do not prepare and equip them for these possibilities, it is likely that a perpetrator will gain the upper hand of influence, using shame and fear to deceive our kids into silence.
Parents would also be wise to be on the lookout for dramatic changes in their child or teen’s behavior. They should not dismiss their child’s isolation or withdrawal as simply evidence of puberty or hormonal surges. While that may be the case, seeing one or more of these signs would be worth some measure of inquiry. Witnessing a dramatic change in behavior should at least bring a parent to give closer attention to the child’s interactions with older youth or adults. Does the child seem uncomfortable around certain people, even frightened or embarrassed? If so, then a warm, loving, and safe conversation with a few specific questions might be in order.
A Few Questions Concerned Parents Can Ask:
· Is everything okay with _________________?
· Has anything happened between you and ___________?
· Sometimes a person might make you feel uncomfortable or even hurt you, and then warn you that you can’t tell anyone. Know that any person who says that cannot be trusted. Has that ever happened to you?
· You know that you can tell me anything and I won’t be mad. Do you need to tell me anything secret?
· I’m here to help you and keep you safe. If you don’t feel safe with someone, it is okay for you to tell me about it.
Parents must realize that their children are looking to them for protection. Any steps parents take to intervene will promote justice, hope and healing. If some form of abuse is discovered, know that it will require great courage to act decisively on behalf of the child. Parents must do the right thing by reporting the abuser to the appropriate authorities.
How to Talk About Abuse
The sooner parents can give their kids a voice regarding sexual abuse, the better. Parents must help them understand that there is power in their voice and that no one can take that power away from them. We have to take responsibility to teach our children about the possibility of sexual abuse. More importantly, we must teach them to respect their bodies and the bodies of others. Our kids’ ages will dictate what and when we might share with them.
Talking with Preschoolers
We must realize that abuse can happen to even the youngest of children, so we must start our strategy of prevention when our kids are very young. This can be as simple as explaining at bath time which parts of the body are private and should never be touched by another adult or child. Pointing out those parts that are always covered by their bathing suit is a good rule of thumb. Let your child know that if anyone touches them in these private areas they must come and tell you—no matter who it is.
Talking with Children
Perhaps the best thing a parent can do during the developmental childhood years is to be a good listener. Always be open and available and listen carefully to what the child’s natural curiosities are. Do not try to cover every detail at once, but plan a specific time to sit down and discuss this topic. Keep the language simple but always use correct terms. If the child has a basic awareness of sexual intercourse, then hopefully they grasp that all aspects of sexuality (including all their private parts) are reserved for adults in marriage. This knowledge will enable the parent to coach their kids to be on the lookout for anyone who is trying to take advantage of them. If nothing else, this makes a solid argument for starting sex education at an earlier age than we are typically comfortable with.
Talking with Teenagers
For some reason, parents become reluctant to talk about the specifics of sexual behavior and activity once their kids become teenagers. We have had numerous occasions when our teenagers’ friends have asked us pretty explicit questions at our house, all because their parents refuse to talk about it at their house. Which begs the question: “Is there such a thing as giving too much information?” The answer is “No.” Information does not encourage a child to be sexually active.
What teenagers need is help to navigate these waters and even coaching to be on the lookout for abuses by others. I have personally heard of enough cases of “date rape” happening to innocent girls that I barely want to let my teenagers out of my sight. Our daughters need to have a sense of empowerment in their minds that will enable them to get out of potentially dangerous situations.
Our teenagers definitely need to know about date rape drugs. While the most popular one is Rohypnol (Roofies), other drugs commonly used include GHB, Ketamine, and even Ambien. They need to know how these are used and that even charming and good-looking young men will try to slip them into their drinks at parties. One specific lesson we must teach our teenage girls (and even our boys): “At a party, do not EVER take a drink that someone gives you. Ever.”
Beyond the drugs that are used by men to take advantage of women, we must coach our kids that recreational drugs and alcohol can quickly make them targets of sexual abuse. A few headline-grabbing trials in recent days have showed us that foolish and energetic young men have the real potential to take advantage of young women who are not fully sober.
The most powerful tools we can give our children are education, clear personal boundaries, and personal power. These are a lifetime of lessons, often practiced in the most risky of situations. Most importantly, our children need to know that we love them and that we will always believe them and support them in any case of sexual abuse. They also need to know that we will fight for justice, no matter the identity of the abuser. Child sexual abuse is a crime that takes great courage to face and greater courage to report.
May we all be parents of great courage.