Oct 16, 2017, 9:48:29 AM CDT May 9, 2024, 11:09:22 AM CDT

How do I talk to my teen about sexual violence and harassment?

Nearly half of teens have experienced some kind of sexual harassment. Here’s how to talk to your teen about it.

Mother talking with teenage daughter sitting in bed while daughter holds pillow Mother talking with teenage daughter sitting in bed while daughter holds pillow

It's rare to watch or read the news without coming across stories covering bullying in schools. But what about sexual violence?

Did you know? Research has shown that students who verbally bully and tease other students in middle school are more likely to also commit sexual harassment.

Sexual violence – defined as sexual harassment, unwanted sexual touching, and homophobic name-calling such as being called gay or lesbian – is common in schools. Studies show that nearly half of kids in grades 7 to 12 have experienced some form of sexual violence. And the risk of experiencing sexual harassment and violence is even higher among youth who identify as LGBTQ+.

Here's some expert advice about how to talk to your teen about sexual violence and harassment.

Have a series of talks

"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., ABPP, Pediatric Psychologist at Children 's Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern. This need not be a forced, unnatural conversation or just a one time "talk." Dr. Westers encourages parents to look for everyday opportunities.

For example, if a television show or movie you're watching together has 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 difference, such as in physical size, age or grade, wealth or even popularity, joking and teasing are more likely to qualify as bullying and even harassment.

Teach your teens to say "no" and accept "no"

It's important that teens be able to stand up for themselves by clearly communicating to others when behavior towards them is unwanted or when boundaries have been crossed without permission. Teach your teen that they always reserve the right to say "no" and have their "no" be accepted.

It's also important that your teen has the skills to speak up against sexual violence as a bystander whenever they see it. Federal law requires school staff to treat sexual harassment as sex discrimination and to respond accordingly. Talk to your teen about how they might approach school staff in reporting sexual violence, and be willing to offer and help your teen make a report.

Some teenagers may misread cues and misperceive 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.

Nearly half of all teens have experienced some form of sexual violence. Teach your teen to say "no," accept "no" and how to speak up against sexual harassment with tips from @Childrens.

Learn more

Children's Health offers comprehensive mental health resources – programs, treatments and professionals – to help families navigate mental health challenges they may face. Learn more about our mental health resources for kids and teens.

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bullying, behavior, school, self-esteem, social skills, teenager

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