Talking with Boys About Sexual Assault

We should not be surprised by the recent maelstrom of accusations of sexual harassment and assault. It’s a common occurrence, unfortunately, and until recently, one that has been hidden, silenced or even bought off. But times seem to be a-changing – and that’s certainly for the better. We see that there’s strength in numbers as literally hundreds of women and men are speaking out about their experiences of assault. This bravery not only shows adults, some who’ve been living with painful memories for years, that it’s important to stand up to sexual bullies and predators, it’s also teaching our youth that such behavior must not be tolerated.

At this point in time, while the topic of sexual abuse is front and center, unlike any other time in recent history, it’s the perfect opportunity to talk to our daughters. These conversations may not be easy, but they are necessary. What we must not forget, though, is to open up the conversations, not only with our daughters, but with our sons. Our job as parents is to raise healthy, independent adults who are participating citizens in the world. And we owe it to our sons to show them how to be sensitive, strong and respectful when it counts.

Men have a unique responsibility – for it is almost as offensive to know that sexual abuse has happened – and not say anything about it, as it is to be responsible for the actual assault. The silence seems a tacit approval. And if we want to live in a world where we respect one another, women cannot shoulder the burden alone. It’s a matter of changing the culture – what is deemed acceptable behavior. There is no easy way to change this.

There is, unfortunately, often a disconnect between sex and relationships. There is often an unspoken assumption that boys want sex, no matter what. That belief has been accepted and tolerated, not to mention exaggerated in media. Let your son know that it’s good to have a healthy relationship before he engages in truly intimate acts. Set high expectations and let him know it’s ok to want more than just sex. And while it’s crucial he learn to ask for consent, it’s important for him to know he also has the right to offer or refuse consent himself. Here are some tips to help your son understand and talk about sexual assault and truly understand the difference between the two. Help him to:

  • Define sexual assault. Call it out for what it is. Be clear on what respect means, and how to honor other people’s space, whether you’re in an intimate relationship or just hanging out at school, a coffee shop, or somewhere else. Talk about the role of power and what it means to use and abuse power in a relationship.
  • Understand consent. Find big and small ways to practice consent. Don’t take food off each other’s plates without asking, and make a direct connection to consent from one circumstance to consent in an intimate circumstance. When you want to enter your son’s room, ask for permission first and say something like, “I’m asking for consent and I am going to listen for your response and respect it.”
  • Listen to others. Pay close attention to accounts from girls and women you know. Listen – don’t jump to comment but ask questions in a respectful manner. Get comfortable with the language and commit to changing the culture.
  • Talk to boys and men. Check in and see how your son feels about this topic. Is he uncomfortable? If so, find out why and talk about it. The more you talk, the more comfortable with the topic you will become. And more importantly, the more informed he will be. Help him understand what it is to be of strong moral character as opposed to what can often be painted as a strong man in our pop culture. Help him know that boys and men can be victims of sexual assault as well, and his consent is important.
  • Be brave. Call out mistreatment of others. It’s easier to look away or laugh along – Especially if it’s a friend or a “cool” or “popular” kid. Role play to help him understand how to be brave, and ask him where he can try to effect change in small ways to practice. Advocate for others. Teach your son to treat others kindly and change the culture literally person by person.
  • Accept responsibility. You need to take responsibility and show your son that you will stand by him should he falter. It’s far better to learn from a mistake while you’re young and pay the price. If you sweep it under the rug it only reinforces bad behavior.
  • Identify people he can go to. Your son needs to know whom he can turn to should he need help and can’t or won’t go to you. Who can he call on for help to be strong? Make sure he knows who those people are – ask him frequently in casual conversation.

We cannot change the culture with one conversation, one school assembly, or one article. We need true community intervention. Start the conversation with your friends and neighbors. Avoid casting judgment and ask each other questions. Help kids who are making mistakes and hurting others rather than labeling them and trying to avoid them. All kids make mistakes and when we hold them accountable and help them through it they can learn from the experience. Ask your school to host an assembly and a parent education event, and know this is just the beginning of the ongoing conversation that is so crucially needed. Participate, and model the behavior you expect of your son.


About the Author: Dr Amy Alamar

Amy Alamar, EdD, has worked in the field of education as a teacher, teacher educator, researcher, parent educator, and education reformer for over fifteen years. In late 2014, Amy wrote Parenting for the Genius: Developing Confidence in Your Parenting through Reflective Practice. The book is a comprehensive guide to becoming the most thoughtful and confident parent possible, with anecdotes and details relating to the guidance and support of children from infant to young adult. In 2016, Amy was an invited guest of Michelle Obama at the White House for a conversation about kids’ health. Amy is also a contributing author to the Disney parenting website, Babble.com and a parent support specialist with Yellowbrick.me. Amy is married and the mother of three children whom she learns from and enjoys each and every day. She is a resident of Avon, CT, where she serves on the board of the Avon Education Foundation, dedicated to promoting and enhancing excellence in education. Find out more about Amy and her work by visiting her website, amyalamar.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This