Recent events about hazing and sexual assault in a Montgomery County high school have parents struggling to talk to their children about what happened. A child advocacy expert gives some tips.
WASHINGTON — Recent headlines about a reported sexual assault at Damascus High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, may prompt children to ask questions about the details of the case.
School officials have said little about the case while it remains under police investigation, and at a recent briefing by the Montgomery County school superintendent, one Damascus High School parent said the school community is struggling to deal with the report that five students are accused of rape in a sexual assault on four junior varsity football teammates.
Dr. Stephanie Wolf is the mental health director at the Tree House Child Advocacy Center in Montgomery County, and she said it is important to allow a child to ask questions about what they may be hearing through friends and on social media.
Parents can help by listening and guiding the conversation, Wolf said.
“Ask open-ended questions,” Wolf said, including asking the child to talk about what they have heard and what questions they may have about it.
Wolf said parents should avoid asking direct questions, as those can sound accusatory.
Though parents may see it as a teachable moment, a chance to tell children how they should behave, Wolf said, “Try not to go into lecture mode.” That can shut down the conversation.
If parents don’t know how to answer a question their child asks, Wolf said that’s OK. “Sometimes, you don’t have the answers, and if you don’t, that’s OK. You can talk about where to go to find the answers,” she said.
Wolf added that it can be constructive to get children to talk about how they might react to a given situation.
If parents are worried that their children have experienced bullying or hazing, or if they may be bothered by things going on in school or in friendships, signs to look for may include withdrawing from activities they normally enjoy.
“Any time a child’s baseline behavior starts changing from what it normally is, that should be a red flag that something may be going on,” Wolf said. “If they’re starting to act more fearful, more secretive, perhaps they’re withdrawing from friends — we may want to explore more what’s happening.”
Allowing a child to talk about uncomfortable or even disturbing information gives them the clear message that they can seek out their parents for needed guidance, Wolf said.