It's rare to watch or read the news without coming across stories covering bullying and the increased efforts that schools are taking to prevent such behavior from occurring on school grounds. But what about sexual violence in schools? After all, research has shown that verbal bullying and teasing in middle schools predicts later perpetration of sexual harassment by those same students.
One study indicates that as many as one in four middle school boys and girls have been recipients of sexual violence – which is defined as sexual harassment, unwanted sexual touching, and homophobic name-calling such as being called gay or lesbian. The majority of this is experienced on school grounds.
With one in four students experiencing some form of sexual violence, how can parents talk to their teens about this issue?
Have “the talk”
“One of the most important things you can do is have regular conversations with your teen about healthy sexual behavior and relationships,” says Nicholas J. Westers, Psy.D., clinical psychologist at Children’s Health℠ and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern. This need not be a forced, unnatural conversation and should not be just a one time “talk.” Dr. Westers encourages parents to look for everyday opportunities.
For example, if a television show or movie you are watching together depicts characters discussing sexual themes, this could be a natural way to extend the conversation to your home. Listen to what your teen thinks about sex and what questions they have. Also, clearly communicate your values about sexual behavior with them. Remember that any awkwardness you might experience during conversations could be out of your own discomfort, not theirs. So have the conversation anyway, and have it more than once.
Is it harassment or just joking?
“Many teens dismiss sexual harassment and teasing as joking or even normal,” says Dr. Westers. “Consequently, they may become permissive bystanders or, because they know each other, may not recognize the behavior as sexual violence or harassment.”
Discuss with your teen that how the other person perceives the joking and teasing is what qualifies as harassment, not necessarily what is intended. Also, if there is a power differential, such as in physical stature, age or grade, wealth or even popularity, joking and teasing cross the line to bullying and even harassment. Regardless, Dr. Westers says the Golden Rule is typically a good one by which to live and to teach your teen.
Teach your teens to say “no” and accept “no”
It is important that teens be able to stand up for themselves by clearly communicating to others when behavior toward them is unwanted or crossing boundaries without permission. Teach your teen that they always reserve the right to say “no” and have their “no” be accepted.
It is also important that they have the skills to speak up against sexual violence as bystanders whenever they witness it. Federal law requires school personnel to treat sexual harassment as sex discrimination and to respond accordingly. Talk to your teen about how they might approach school personnel in reporting sexual violence, and be willing to offer and help your teen make a report.
Some teenagers may misread cues and misperceive their sexual advances as welcome or normal. Not only is it important that they be able to say “no” to others, but discuss with your teen how to hear someone else tell them “no” and what it feels like to accept it.
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