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.

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Anxiety shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️

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