WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - In recent days, nearly a dozen high-profile politicians and celebrities have been accused of sexual assault.
Many of those coming forward say they were victimized as children. Their stories have thrust the topic into the forefront of national conversations.
The Girl Scouts is addressing the issue head-on, in an untraditional way.
In a post online titled “Reminder: She Doesn’t Owe Anyone a Hug. Not Even at the Holidays,” Girl Scouts tells parents that it is not always OK to demand children show affection through physical touch.
“Have you ever insisted, 'Uncle Joe got here, go give him a big hug!' or 'Aunt gave you that nice toy, go give her a kiss,' when you were worried your child might not offer affection on her own? If yes, you might want to reconsider the urge to do that in the future,” the post reads. “Think of it this way, telling your child that she owes someone a hug either just because she hasn’t seen this person in a while or because they gave her a gift can set the stage for her questioning whether she 'owes' another person any type of physical affection when they’ve bought her dinner or done something else seemingly nice for her later in life.”
“I think the most important thing the Girl Scouts was able to identify is that the conversations need to be happening and to start at a very young age,” said Ashley LeGrange, a licensed mental health therapist and founder of the Stand Up Foundation, a local non-profit youth mentoring and leadership organization. “It starts with having conversations about what feels right inside and what your gut says. It also starts with values, what are your family values.”
Rebecca Harley, a mother of a 6-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son, says she has had ongoing conversations about physical touch with both of her children.
“I started young with getting her comfortable with parts of the body,” Harley said. “For my daughter … I definitely want her to be empowered, I want her to understand she is in control of her body, what happens to it, what it looks like, and how she feels about it.”
Harley says she was inspired to have the conversations with her children based on her career working with the Florida Department of Children and Families and now as a parenting counselor with Boys Town South Florida.
“I just started with the general conversation about what touching is, which ones are OK and which ones are not,” Harley said.
Harley says it’s important to start the conversations early and to have them often, using language that is easy for a child to understand.
RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. It estimates an American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds, and every eight minutes a child is sexually assaulted.
It is also estimated, by RAINN, that one out of every nine girls is sexually assaulted by an adult.
“Most of the time when somebody has gone through this situation, it’s been by somebody they know and someone they know well,” LeGrange said.
That is why Harley says it is important she has focused the conversations with her children on inappropriate touching by anyone.
“With our conversations, I make sure she understands nobody is off limits,” Harley said. “I will say, ‘What if your cousin or what if your daddy,’ and that gets them thinking outside of the box and they know then there is no boundary on who can possibly offend them. The intention may not be to abuse them, but if it makes them feel uncomfortable they need to feel empowered to communicate and let them know.”
Having the conversation is no easier, Harley says, with her son.
“As soon as I was relaxed and let him know he didn’t need to be guarded, I was so shocked how honest he was with his curiosity,” Harley said. She says with the conversations, she wants her daughter to feel empowered to protect herself, and for her son to know the respectable way to treat girls and women.
Harley and LeGrange agree they are important conversations that have to be had between children and parents early and often.
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