How to talk to kids about sexual assault, misconduct in #MeToo era

WASHINGTON — In the last year, thousands of women have gone public with their personal stories of sexual harassment, assault or misconduct. And the ripple effect has touched nearly every corner of the world.

Household names have been removed from major networks, movie moguls have been dethroned — even politicians have resigned from their powerful positions in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

“It’s pretty impossible to get through a day in the U.S. without hearing about violence against women coming up,” said Leslie Morgan Steiner, parenting expert and author of “Crazy Love.”

Chances are, your kids are hearing about it too. And this has left many parents questioning whether to talk to their children about current events playing out in the news.

“It’s really hard for parents because these are tough subjects for adults, but then how do you talk to your kids about these subjects? In particular, do you talk to your daughters and sons the same or differently?” Steiner said.

There are a few ways to go about it. Steiner shares some of her best advice:

Start the sex talk young

One way to make conversations with your children about sexual assault easier is if you start an open dialogue about sex when kids are young.

“And for lots of parents, that’s the first stumbling block,” Steiner said.

Introduce the basics of body parts, and be open about how babies are made. Steiner said remember: Sexuality is a part of life.

“Do not wait until your daughter is 13 to have a conversation with her about sex. It’s got to start long before that,” she said.

“And if you’re comfortable talking to your kids about age-appropriate sexual activity, and just awareness of their body, then the really hard conversations about assault and harassment go much more easily.”

When talking to boys, father figures can be helpful

Steiner said sometimes, it’s easier for moms to have the difficult sex conversations with kids, but when it comes to boys, having a father — or father figure — enforce the message is helpful.

“The way that our society tends to work is that men have great credibility in this arena. And boys are going to face tremendous peer pressure from their male peers to be macho, to be tough, and to treat women sometimes in a really denigrating way,” Steiner said.

“And you want to be a man that says that is not acceptable; that any kind of violence against women and girls is not acceptable; that decent boys and men do not treat women this way, and you need to say that you wouldn’t do it and you wouldn’t accept it.”

And as uncomfortable as it may be, sometimes it’s necessary to be clear and repetitive. Steiner recalls having frequent conversations with her son on the importance of consent in his relationships.

“And it was so painful to say that … but I needed to do it. And I think that’s what good parents and good adult role models should do. I think it’s part of our job as parents to have these difficult conversations with our kids,” she said.

Keep an open dialogue with daughters

Steiner, a mother of three, said girls are susceptible to uncomfortable sexual incidents at very young ages — catcalls, exposures, etc. Because of that, it’s important to tackle the topic head-on, and not to shy away from it.

Having an open dialogue will establish you as a credible source of information, and someone they can come to if they have questions or find themselves in troubling situations.

Teaching them to trust their instincts is another big one when it comes to topics related to sex.

“As women, in particular, we were taught not to trust our instincts, and to place a very high premium on being polite and submissive and kind of soft and feminine. It’s difficult, if you weren’t taught these things, to teach your own daughters this. Which is another reason I think men are really important in this conversation, because sometimes this is much more black-and-white for fathers and father figures, and they can play a really great role in talking to daughters as well.”

Share your own story — if you’re ready

The #MeToo movement has inspired many women — and men — to speak up with their personal accounts and experiences with sexual assault and misconduct. And Steiner said if you have your own story and feel comfortable sharing it, “you can be such a powerful teacher.”

Give a simplified version to young kids, and share a more truthful account to your teens.

“By being more human and being an example of not just the trauma, but having gotten over the trauma, you make yourself accessible to your kids in a way that is very helpful to them as they come into their own and as they mature and grow up and face their own challenges,” Steiner said.

The fear of false accusations

Steiner said she has heard from many parents who are worried their sons might one day become a target of false accusations of sexual assault. She said this topic is one of the few parts about sexual assault that is simple and straightforward — and that’s because instances of false accusations are low and rare.

“Law enforcement estimates that only about 2 to 4 percent of sexual assault accusations turn out to be false,” said Steiner, who added that false accounts also tend to “fall apart quickly.”

“So if you’re in the terrible situation of having somebody in your life falsely accused of sexual assault — especially a child — the advice to give them, even if it’s a grown child, is to stay calm and to tell the truth and to just trust that this is going to be resolved in their favor if it is, indeed, a false accusation. Because that is [what law enforcement says] almost always happens.”

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