As parents, we worry. It’s our job. We worry about the big stuff and the little stuff and everything in between. We worry about things that can happen — and unfortunately do happen — to many people.
One of the most important things we can do to help keep our kids safe comes down to how we treat others, especially in front of our children. This is why the most effective way to stop sexual violence from impacting our children’s lives is to teach them how to build healthy relationships.
Why is this, you might be asking? Well, it’s pretty simple. The vast majority happens between people who know each other. Very rarely are children sexually abused or assaulted by someone they don’t know.
According to Rainn.org (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), for example, over 80 percent of sexual assault victims know the person who raped them and 93 percent of childhood sexual abuse victims know the person who abused them. We also have to keep in mind that most experts in the field of sexual violence believe that the majority of sexual violence that occurs in our country goes unreported, so these numbers may be worse.
- Teach Respect for Self and Others
Respect is not a buzzword. Children who learn to respect and be respected will not put up with someone who is disrespectful of them or their boundaries. How we model this initial aspect of a healthy relationship is paramount, even if it is easier said than done.
One quick tip is to talk with your children on a regular basis about respect. Ask questions and remember to give your child time to process, because these are not easy to answer. What is respect? (It’s harder to define than you might think, even for an adult.) Where do they see it? How do they know they’re being disrespected? How do they show respect to their friends?
Think of it like this: What is more disrespectful than rape?
- Communicate Assertively
This leads us to the second most important part of building a healthy relationship: We need to communicate and communicate assertively. We need to talk about how we feel and why we feel that way. We need to listen, and listening is one of the best ways to show someone respect. If we talk and listen, we can understand what the other person is feeling and if they listen to us, they’ll have a better chance of understanding where we are coming from as well.
Children learn to be assertive — which can also be described as standing up for yourself without attacking someone else — by seeing assertive communication modeled for them. Based in respect, assertive communication can save a life. People who rape other people are looking for someone who will not speak up for themselves. They are like submarines cruising around the ocean floor pinging away with their sonar searching for someone who won’t say, “No” or “Leave me alone” or “I don’t like that.”
A great way to practice assertive behavior is to use an “I” message. An example would be something like this: “I feel angry when you don’t listen to me and I want you to show me respect.” This illustrates how you feel (angry) and why you feel that way (because they aren’t listening) and what you need (show me respect). When we model this for our kids, we empower them to use their voices and what sexual predators know is that someone who will say “No” and use assertive communication is someone who will tell — and that’s the last thing they want to happen.
- Talk About Boundaries
One last tip for parents is to spend time working on respect and communication by talking about boundaries. We all have boundaries and all kids understand and need them, even if they can’t articulate it yet. We all want to know what our limits are in every situation. As previously mentioned, people who rape are looking for someone who will not stand up for their boundaries. If we teach our kids that their personal space, whether it’s emotional, physical, or sexual, is theirs and theirs alone to decide what is okay and not okay.
As our children learn that when something doesn’t feel quite right and a person they maybe love, trust, or feel they are safe makes them uncomfortable, it is okay to say “No” or “Stop” or “Leave me alone!” People in healthy relationships listen, show respect, and back off when someone is uncomfortable. Rather than spending time worrying, let’s spend more time talking to our kids about how to respectfully and assertively stand up for their boundaries. This is a much more effective way to keep our children safe.
Tom Reardon has over twenty years’ experience working in the fields of bullying prevention and sexual violence prevention. Mr. Reardon was certified to train educators in the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (OBPP) in 2007 and has trained hundreds of teachers, administrators, and parents in schools around Maricopa County, Arizona. Mr. Reardon has also worked with almost 100,000 students during his career and is an expert in social and emotional learning. Additionally, Mr. Reardon is an accomplished musician currently in The Father Figures, as well as writing for Phoenix New Times, LA Weekly, Echo Magazine, Java Monthly, and Tucson Weekly.