Teaching Kids Street Safety, From a Therapist

an illustration of a mother and child sitting on a bench holding flowers
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

Can you remember how old you were the first time you were catcalled? It's not exactly a nice memory, but it does stand out. I was 9 years old when I experienced the first of many uninvited comments—some lewd and embarrassing and others scary. Whatever end of the spectrum, it's never pleasant. Most recently, a car full of teenage boys threw bags of empty junk food at me while whistling. Hurling literal trash—how's that for symbolism?

When I was younger, there wasn't a name for it other than catcalling (at least, not that I knew of). And though I'd unwillingly learned what it was through experience, like most women, I was keen to learn how to deal with it so I felt safer in my body while in public spaces. So I was excited when our school brought in a street-safety specialist. That is until he told us what features or mannerisms were our most vulnerable—my full lips supposedly made me an easy target—as if knowing how we were perceived by men would somehow prevent street harassment.

Street harassment is defined as "unwanted comments, gestures, and actions forced on a stranger in a public place without their consent and directed at them because of their actual or perceived sex, gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation." Because I wish I had felt more empowered and informed rather than exposed and defeated, I decided to reach out to Nicole Makowka—a licensed marriage and family therapist and the therapeutic director at Loom, a community and meeting place for parents—to find out how she recommends discussing these issues with kids in a supportive and realistic way.

Scroll through to hear what she suggests, as well as some other insights from anti-street harassment resources for kids and adults alike.

What to Think About Beforehand

If you want to bring up street harassment and safety with your child once they reach an age to go places without an adult but you aren't sure how Makowka recommends that parents talk to each other openly about their worries and overall feelings about any topic. "Building your own community of support can be a great way for kids to feel most secure, and it's easier when there are consistent messages from both parents," she notes. "Once parents are on the same page about the messages they are sending, talking with their kids together is great. It doesn't always have to be a formal conversation."

She continues, "You can start these conversations with your children casually, and it is not something that only one parent should be responsible for. The message you want to send to your child is that they can talk to both of you about their feelings and ask questions. You are on the same team. As a parent, if you have experienced any trauma around this, it's important to seek your own counseling to process how to approach your child on this topic and work through whether transference is impacting your parenting decisions."

How to Approach the Conversation

"You can start these conversations with your children casually," says Makowka, which may take the pressure off for you and make your child feel more secure and comfortable. Remember that this is supposed to be a conversation. "It's important for parents to listen to their children as much as they talk to and prepare their kids," she adds.

It's also possible that your child will bring it up before you do, so Makowka says the most important thing to do is to lay the foundation of respecting their bodies and everyone's bodies—as you may have already done in previous conversations when they were younger. "[But make sure] kids feel comfortable asking questions or sharing that they feel uncomfortable about something," she notes. "It's important to let your child know that you are not going to shame them or scold them for being honest and curious." And once you open up this line of communication, it'll help you craft specific plans for how your children can be safer, Makowka says.

How to Prepare Your Kids for Street Safety

Sometimes our inclination is to either to downplay the situation to diminish the emotional impact and/or to quell any anxiety, but other times we may react in the opposite way by overreacting and scaring our kids. It's a tricky line, but staying calm while also validating an emotion and listening to your child's needs is a solid approach. When they ask you how they should respond if someone does hassle them, there are a few different ways to go. Of course, this depends on your child's age. If they're old enough to be out on their own, especially in a city, it's crucial that they're comfortable with the phone and know how to dial 911 in an emergency before they try calling you or a friend.

What happens if it isn't a serious emergency or they aren't able to call 911? "[In such cases,] you can talk about having a code word they can text you if they feel uncomfortable in a given situation," says Makowka. As they get older and you start giving them more freedom to venture off on their own, you can start preparing them for more nuanced situations and come up with action plans together so that they don't feel caught off-guard and unprepared if something happens. Another good standard is to encourage them to travel with groups of friends or stick to the buddy system so they have their friends' emotional support if anything comes up and they can put their heads together to cope with a tricky situation. Makowka also stresses that it's crucial to never shame or blame your child for experiencing street harassment, regardless of what they were doing or wearing when it happened.

How to Take Action and Regain Empowerment

According to research from the anti-street harassment organization Hollaback, responding to comments from harassers may help reduce the emotional impact of harassment, but safety should always be the priority. Sometimes the attention and aggression can lead to further comments or physical aggression, so if you don't think your child can gauge the situation, it's best to focus on de-escalating it rather than fighting back. If they do want to say something, they can simply say, "Do not speak with me." But remind them to be firm, to disengage, and to keep moving. If someone is persistent or following them, it's best to go into a store or head to a crowded location where an adult can help.

A good way to begin dismantling the culture that enables gender-based street harassment is to empower your child to help others when they witness street harassment. Again, safety should always be the priority. But there are many ways to respond as a bystander, and being passive is not usually the best option. They could step in and say, "Leave them alone," but since direct intervention can present a bigger risk, it's best to ignore the harasser and instead opt to engage the person who is being harassed. As adults, we can pretend to know them and de-escalate the situation by asking them the time to divert attention. For children, it's best to ask someone nearby for help, perhaps a salesperson in a store or another person on the bus.

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