How do we talk with and support our children amid the daily barrage of media reports about sexual harassment? How can we guide teens in navigating these issues in their own lives? School Counselor Amy Blackburn offers practical advice and resources.
Recently, some students came to talk to me. At first, we just chatted casually but it soon became clear that they had something on their minds. They went on to talk about a party they had been to and they described behavior we all—parents, teachers, counselors—have become quite familiar with. They wanted to know why "boys behave so badly and what can be done to fix the problem."
These conversations can be difficult because sometimes, young people aren't looking for you to answer the question they actually asked. They want validation and support. If you stray at all or too soon into the territory of education and behavior change, you may find yourself alone on the other side of a closed door.
In December 2017, Winsor's Parent Network for Diversity (PND) presented a parent forum on the topic of sexual harassment. Inspired by recent events, the morning created an opportunity to discuss how best to support our children as print, broadcast, and social media have been reporting sexual abuse, harassment and misconduct allegations on a daily basis.
As part of the forum, we heard the voices of Winsor students through transcribed conversations that have taken place in health classes. As parents read aloud the words of anonymous students, many in the room were visibly moved. It is difficult to think that your child may have been stared at, groped, verbally accosted in a sexual way, touched or forced into unwanted physical and/or sexual contact with anyone. It's especially difficult to contemplate that something unpleasant or traumatic could happen to your child and that she or he would not tell you about it.
Lately, through Winsor vehicles such as the health survey, Class VI Dialogue Night, and conversations in health classes, we have had many opportunities to learn from Winsor students. There is plenty of good news and it seems that the majority of our young people are consistently making healthy decisions and have adults they can trust and talk to when needed. However, we have also seen that despite the efforts we make to teach and the confidence we may have in our relationships and the trust we have garnered, there are always mysteries, misunderstandings, misperceptions, and confusion.
In a December issue of the student newspaper, The Panel, we heard more student voices through two articles about consent and the influence of #MeToo on the Winsor community. In both articles, students at Belmont Hill and Winsor grappled with current events involving sexual misconduct and attitudes among students at both schools. They also examined student opinions about the health curriculum at each school in an effort to discover if students feel they are being taught what they need to know to successfully navigate the complexities of growing up in a society that "encourages sexual assault and reinforces gender norms that are harmful for all our kids, no matter their gender." ("The Parent Buzz," Dec. 2017).
We need to remember that not all the decisions adolescents make are a product of teaching, either by parents or teachers. Sometimes they have ideas that don't seem to follow what we believe they should have learned or internalized. In a recent Upper School health class, Ms. Martin posed the question: "If you don't talk to your parents about your own experiences with harassment, why is that?" The answers ranged from "I don't want to worry them" or "it's no big deal and there's nothing they can do anyway" to "I don't want them to restrict me."
As caring adults, our natural inclination is to protect our children and in our absence, teach them to protect themselves. It is clear that there is a lot of work to do and that parents and schools need to share in the responsibility of educating and supporting our children. As we read in Time magazine's Person of the Year issue: "When movie stars don't know where to go, what hope is there for the rest of us?"
The keys are to communicate with our children early and often, to model empathy, to respond nonjudgmentally, and to always keep the door open for future conversation.
There are many resources available with excellent information about talking to young people about sexual harassment and several of them are included below.
[NOTE: contributed by Amy Blackburn, Psy.D., former school counselor]
Silence Breakers, Time's "Person of the Year 2017"
Time's Person of the Year," Taylor Swift interview
"Talking to Our Children About Sexual Harassment and Consent," "The Parent Buzz," Dec. 2017, Issue 70, Planned Parenthood.
"Hi, It's Us, All the Fourteen-Year-Old Girls in America"
"The Hunting Ground
"Maybe Doesn't Mean Yes"
Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC), 800-841-8371
National Sexual Assault Hotline, 1-800-656-4673