Signs your teen may be dealing with sexual harassment — and how to talk about it

teenage sexual harassment assault

Signs your teen may be dealing with sexual harassment — and how to talk about it


Signs your teen may be dealing with sexual harassment — and how to talk about it


Editor’s Note: This story originally published on

Sexual harassment has dominated much of the discussion in American politics, entertainment, media and in the workplace.

You’ve probably talked about the lewd behavior with your friends and your significant other.

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  • How should you broach the topic with your teenager?
  • How do you spot signs that he or she might be experiencing harassment at school or at after-school jobs?
  • And how do you help your child stand up for herself or himself?

Terry Thorstad, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in teen abuse, spoke to The Arizona Republic about how to navigate the discussion with teens.

When do I bring it up?

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Trust your instinct, Thorstad said. If something is wrong with your son or daughter, behaviors might change as they try to navigate the problem and go into self-preservation mode.

Especially with teens, it can be hard for parents to discern the difference between typical teenage angst and deeper issues, like harassment, he said.

Watch for behaviors that are not consistent with their personalities.

  • Are they spending more time in bed or playing video games?
  • Are they eating less or eating more?
  • Are they engaging in destructive behavior, like drinking or using drugs?
  • Have they lost interest in school, work, church or friends?

If the answer is yes to any of those questions, it’s time to talk, Thorstad said.

“A lot of parents make the mistake of doing something too late because … (like) their own lives are busy and complicated, or there’s strife within the marriage,” he said.

“There’s really no wrong time to tap into a potentially harmful sort of experience that the kid might be ready to talk about. Just talk, talk, talk and talk.

How do I bring it up?

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Broaching the subject with siblings around isn’t the best idea.

Get some alone time with your child at home, or take them out to lunch. Try to create an environment where they feel safe and protected, Thorstad said.

Open the conversation with non-judgmental language, and by reinforcing your love and support.

Thorstad suggested initiating the conversation by saying something along the lines of, “No matter what’s going on, we’re there for you,” or “We accept you and want to help you any way we can.”

“It’s really about making what’s going on in their little teen bubble the most important thing,” he said. “It’s sending the message that, ‘We are going to promote you and accept you and help you in any way we can.’ ”

Don’t accuse your son or daughter of encouraging the harassing behavior, he said. Some parents tend to shift blame on their kids, which could cause them to shut down lines of open communication.

Use leading questions

Teen boys in particular can be tough to crack. Allow them to take ownership of the conversation by asking leading questions, Thorstad said. Those could include: “What do you think we should do about this?” or “What would you do if you were us?”

Drive home your goal of protecting him.

“It’s so much more cathartic for them to take ownership and allowing parents to help them navigate rather than directing them and taking a black-and-white approach,” he said. “It really empowers them.”

What if my hunch is right?

We have to educate our girls and particularly our boys about sex assault and rape culture so they don't become part of the #metoo narrative.

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Come up with a plan centered around safety.

For some, that might mean demanding a meeting with a principal, a boss or corporate office, church officials, or the parents of friends or boyfriends.

For others, that might mean quitting a job or reporting improper behavior to police.

It could also include a phone call to a counselor or therapist.

“The best thing is to develop a plan that is centered around safety,” Thorstad said.

What is sexual harassment?

The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights defines it this way:

“Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. It includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”

WATCH: Why online sexual-assault prevention isn’t simple

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