When it comes to kids and abusive relationships, here’s the challenge facing parents, educators, and advocates: we all agree that relationship violence and sexual assault are unacceptable, but we don’t know exactly how to talk to kids about avoiding it.
Abusive relationships are enormous problems for our children. The Centers for Disease Control reports 15 million kids experience relationship violence each year. The riskiest period in anyone’s life, in terms of sexual assault and intimate partner violence, is 16 to 24. A 2015 Kaiser Family Foundation/Washington Post poll found that 20% of college women experience unwanted sexual contact; a 2013 CDC survey reports that 10% of high school women have been forced to have sex against their will at least once.
As a result, the latest version of No Child Left Behind – a 600 page bill currently working its way through the House and Senate – includes a measure that requires public high schools nationwide to teach students about safe relationships, how to consent to (or refuse) sex, and how to avoid sexual violence and coercion.
However, talking to children about sex – particularly through our schools — remains an explosive educational topic.
The fear among many parents, politicians and school administrators is that by talking to kids about sex, even with the goal of teaching kids how to avoid sexual or relationship violence, has the inadvertent impact of encouraging them to have sex or get into relationships before they are ready. Evidence is that 70% of high school seniors have had sex, so some believe it’s impossible to stop teenagers from becoming sexually active. But the flip side fear must be addressed: maybe the high rate of sexual activity is caused by exposing kids to sex, through the media, music, and educational programs.
Which is why frank, and appropriate, sex and relationship education is something we all need to discuss, research and debate. It’s also why parents have every right – even an obligation – to talk to our children about our values and experiences when it comes to sex, and to educate them about the risks of sexual activity, assault, and relationship violence. What our kids learn about sex – through schools, youth groups, camps or via friends – is a side dish; what we, as parents, teach our children at home is the main course.
Here’s what I do: I offer short, candid soundbites at key times. The easiest opportunities, of course, come when kids ask a specific question or make a comment. But in 18 years of parenting, this has happened once. What’s far more common is that we hear something about sex or assault on TV or on the radio, or via gossip at school or in the neighborhood.
In response, with alacrity (don’t think about it!), I spit out accurate information about sex and assault and my own experience. I told my three kids, before they turned six, the following: “Mommy used to be married to someone before Daddy. I loved him, but he hit me, and you can’t stay with someone who hurts you. So I divorced him.”
The same brevity works for sexual assault: “My first year of college, a cute hockey player asked me to go to his room one night to get a sweatshirt because he was cold. My older sister had warned me during freshman week that I should never to go to a man’s room alone. So I said no. I heard later that he tried to rape another girl. I was really glad I listened to my sister and my own instincts.”
Or, if you don’t have personal stories (or prefer not to share them) use statistics or celebrities: “Rihanna was 20 when Chris Brown attacked her. Did you know that girls 18-24 are three times as likely to be assaulted as women of other ages. Why do you think that is? Do you have any friends who’ve been hit by their boyfriends or girlfriends?”
Or: “I saw a study that said 1 in 5 college women are raped. I also learned that it’s important, if you are assaulted, that the first person you tell believes you. I want you to know if you or a friend are ever attacked, even if you somehow think it was your fault, even if it takes you a long time to tell me about it, I will always believe you and help you figure out what you want to do about it.”
This sounds easy, right? Believe it or not, talking to kids about these difficult topics is actually simpler than many other tough parenting subjects. But first, you need to educate yourself about sexual assault and relationship violence, in order to boil the complexity down to 30 seconds of useful information your individual teenager(s) will actually be able to hear. So check out The One Love Foundation , or Love Is Respect , or RAIIN , or Google your local domestic violence shelter or rape crisis center. Conduct your own sex ed class, and then share what you found with the kids in your life. A little education can go a long way.