April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month—which gives you the perfect excuse to bring up the subject with your young teen.
Jane Hunter, director of community education for the Lake County Council Against Sexual Assault, says parent-child conversation is one of the best defenses against sexual assault for teens.
And they need the help. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics says that in 2002, two of every 1,000 teens ages 12 to 15 and five of every 1,000 teens ages 16 to 19 were the victim of rape or sexual assault. The three age groups with the highest rates of sexual victimization are 12 to 15, 16 to 19 and 20 to 24.
Sexual assault does not just occur in situations that you think your child would never encounter. It’s not just a stranger in a dark alley in a bad neighborhood. Being talked into performing any act of sex or intimacy without one’s consent is also assault—a scene that could occur in your own family room with your son’s or daughter’s friend or date.
All young teens need to be aware of their right to set limits and boundaries on their bodies, and to be confident in defending those boundaries. Hunter notes that kids of both genders are bombarded with sexualized media images. Those images teach boys to ask for anything they want and take it if they don’t get it; girls are taught to use their looks and bodies to manipulate.
Sex is portrayed as an aspect of one-dimensional relationships—strictly physical. Kids are not taught about healthy relating, caring, sharing and communication. It also doesn’t help either sex to feel comfortable saying “no,” because they get the message that sex is cool, is the norm and “everybody’s doing it.”
Parents can help their teens in the following ways:
• Teach and model respect.
Analyze your own behaviors. As parents, how do you treat each other? How do you talk about the opposite sex? How do you respond to sexual violence or any violence on television? How do you show respect for all genders, races, religions and age groups? If your words or actions are disrespectful, that is what you are teaching your children.
• Model good relationships.
A mature relationship involves two people who are able to share their lives with each other, not just their bodies. They have respect for each other’s feelings and ideas, and there is a sense of equality between them. They are able to be open and communicate with each other about many topics, including intimacy.
According to Hunter, if you’re not mature enough to talk about intimacy from every angle, then you’re not ready to be having sex, consensual or not. Kids can learn how to have mature relationships with dating partners by having them first with family members—siblings, parents, extended family—and with friends.
• Teach and model good communication.
Talk to and listen to your children, your spouse, your friends and neighbors. Show kids how to express their ideas and feelings appropriately by doing it yourself. Show them that listening is half of the communication experience.
Take the time to address important issues with your kids. Let them know that even when it’s not easy, communication is vital to a healthy relationship. Help them learn ways to speak their mind, express their opinions and to hear and consider the opinions of others.
• Teach the concept of “consent.”
True consent means that two people come to an agreement. In an intimate situation, it is the responsibility of both parties to voice their opinions, needs and limits. And it is the responsibility of each person to respect the other. If one or the other is not completely sure about their feelings or how they want to act, then consent is not present.
Consent is also not possible if one or both parties is under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Just as with driving, substance use impairs a person’s ability to use good judgment and make sound decisions. Agreeing to something when under the influence of a substance is not consent.
• Teach assertiveness.
Empower your kids to stand up for themselves so they understand that they have the right to set boundaries and limits on other people. It can take a lot of inner strength to be able to say, “No, that’s not what I want to do.”
Encourage your teen to choose and practice the words ahead of time so that they come out automatically in a pressured situation. Teach him to physically remove himself from any situation that begins to feel threatening. That can mean getting up from the couch, leaving the room or walking out of the house.
Each individual person’s attitudes and behaviors contribute to the creation of our cultural attitudes and behaviors.
Checking your own actions and teaching your children to respect both themselves and others will help to eliminate the occurrence of sexual assault and all types of violence in our society.
Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville and the stepmother of two, ages 21 and 25. She can be reached at (847) 782-1722.