A few weeks ago, I was talking with a mom who told me a story about her teen daughter getting ready to go to the mall. Her daughter came out of her room in a cute crop top and shorts, confident and excited to see her friends — and thrilled about showing her midriff and feeling great. Mom thought how beautiful her daughter looked and admired her self-assurance. But she also had a vision of a predator walking through the mall — and her daughter standing out from the crowd.
What’s the best way for parents to make sure we foster our children’s love of their bodies and respect for those bodies — but also explain to them that threats do exist? How can we let them know that although someone might approach them differently because of their outfit, any kind of sexual harassment is never because they “were asking for it”? How can we warn our daughters about potential risks while still encouraging them to be, say and wear what they want?
First, parents: If you’re coming from a place of love for your kid, you’re doing it right. There are always things we’re learning and improving, and every parent-child relationship has its own tricks and dynamics. But you know your daughter. Your relationship with her — and your respect of her — is key. No one else knows as much as you do about your relationship with your kid.
Having said that, these are a few strategies that, in my work as a lawyer and life coach, I ask parents to take when working with their daughters on harassment and safety.
Model the boundaries you want her to have
This one is the hardest, so don’t get too discouraged if you struggle with it. And note: Modeling boundaries does not mean wearing conservative clothing. That’s not a boundary; it’s a way we change our behavior to try to manage or avoid violent people. A personal boundary, on the other hand, is like a property boundary — and enforcing it involves setting consequences that protect you when a boundary violation happens.
And if you can’t set and enforce consequences in front of your daughter, she has no model to follow. Usually, I see this show up in the ways parents respond to certain friends or family members. For example, maybe mom feels she can’t ask Aunt Susan to leave even when Aunt Susan comes over interrupting family dinner to ask to borrow money again. Or maybe dad told mom he needs one hour alone after she comes home from work just to be by himself after being with the kids all day — but when mom seems annoyed at that, dad relents and doesn’t follow through.
So with role models like this, when the daughter runs into similar situations with people who want to push or violate her boundaries, she doesn’t know how to enforce them, let alone set consequences. Someone touches her in a way she doesn’t like, but she has absorbed the idea that love and kindness mean giving in.
On the other hand, if she is used to seeing her parents respect their own boundaries, she will absorb the message that respecting boundaries is an important part of love. Yes, it’s hard to set boundaries with people we love, but parents: That hard work could start with your daughter or it could start with you and come naturally to her.
Listen to her
You may have more life experience than your daughter, but cultivating her own respect for her perspective and opinions is crucial to her being able to judge whether situations are safe or dangerous. Practice listening and deferring to her opinions. If you disagree, still listen to the good reasons she has for her perspective.
One of the most serious contributors to people staying in violent relationships or putting themselves in dangerous situations is that they doubt themselves. This can start or stop at any age, so if your daughter doubts herself and falls into confusion often, there are many things you can do to help. It starts with you listening to her and respecting her intuition and opinions.
Often, when someone is in a violent relationship, they reach out to a family member or friend, and the support person tells them they shouldn’t be in the relationship and that they deserve more. This seems like a completely fair response; the only problem is that the survivor often takes it as more evidence that they’re a bad decision-maker and that there’s something wrong with them. Then, because there’s “something wrong with them,” they decide they can’t make a change. They have to keep looking to their harasser or abuser for the answer.
The more we can do to trust girls’ opinions and gut instinct and help them build skills in those areas, the more they will also trust those parts of themselves that are able to keep them safe. In the instance when harassment happens, she will look to herself, not the outside world, for what to do to create safety.
Make it about her
When we’re teaching young girls about the unfair and sexist ways in which much of society expects her to behave versus any benefits (or lack thereof) to them, it can be easy to make the experience about us, the parents, and our own failures. When our girls have a negative experience, we can do the same, blaming ourselves for being “bad parents” or reliving what we could have done differently. This actually steals from the child’s experience. Your child’s experience is about her growth and her challenges; it is not a measuring stick for your abilities or value.
Now, don’t get me wrong: It is very typical to make other people’s experiences about us and to blame ourselves for their challenges. Sometimes, it’s good to take responsibility for what they’ve done wrong if we taught them to do it wrong. This is your work, but it is separate from what you have to offer your daughter or her experience.
Your daughter’s trip to the mall is about her, not about whether you are a good mom or dad. How can she have the best experience possible? How can she get everything that would help her from your experience? How can you hold space for everything that’s going on with her and offer her the most success and safety possible?
It may be unfair (and yet also reality) that our girls face more scrutiny and danger because of clothes, where and when they can walk and almost every other behavior than our boys. Share that discussion with your daughter, and ask her what she thinks about it. Ask her what we can do to change that for future kids — and then listen. These problems are falling on her generation to solve, and she may have a better answer than we do. Be honest with her, do your work on your story ahead of time, and support her in solving her next challenge. She’s got this.