My 17 year old son inappropriately touched a 16 year old girl.
Dear Stop It Now!,
My daughter’s 16-year old friend told me that my 17-year old son put his hand under her shirt and down her pants while she was sleeping. I don’t think I reacted properly and didn’t realize the impact it had on the girl; they have been friends since grade school. Her mother is upset at us, and rightfully so. It has gotten around on social media, and my son is being called a pedophile and my daughter is also being ridiculed. I am getting my son into counseling, but is there anything else I should do?
Dear Concerned Parent,
I can only imagine how difficult this must be for your family, as well as for this girl and her family. Trust has been broken, and it sounds like the consequences of this behavior are being played out on school grounds and social media. I am sorry to hear that this has happened, but I am glad that you’ve reached out to us for additional guidance on next steps.
Conversations After Unsafe Behavior
As you're realizing, your son’s behavior was inappropriate and crossed a line. In fact, since he’s almost near the age where he can be considered a legal adult, this type of behavior is something that could have led to adult criminal charges – so it is important to take this very seriously. I do want to be clear that this doesn’t mean he’s a pedophile nor does it mean that he will grow up into a sexually abusive adult. However, it is critical that this behavior be addressed, that he is provided help to support his own ability to be accountable and responsible, and to practice safe behaviors. It is critical for you to stay engaged and help him address his behavior and make safer decisions, including recognizing that the impacts of his behavior can have grave real-world consequences for all involved parties.
I’m curious – have you had a chance yet to talk to him about his behavior and if so, how does he explain his behavior? Even at his age, it is possible that he was impulsive, and that his own curiosity led him to behave as he did. Though it is okay (and normal and healthy!) for him to want to know what it’s like to touch someone else’s body, it is never okay to do so without their consent. And, sleeping people or people who are otherwise incapacitated (because they are intoxicated, unconscious, etc.) can never give consent. Consent is an ongoing evolving thing – just because someone gives it once or for one sexual act (kissing, oral sex), doesn’t mean they can’t take it back at any time (they can!), it doesn’t mean that they are agreeing to that same sexual act on a different day or time, and it doesn’t mean that they’re agreeing to all sexual acts henceforth. Consent must be talked about every step of the way in a sexual encounter.
There could be other reasons that he acted as he did, and he may not even be able to fully describe why. While you don't have to agree or understand with what he says, it is important to let him know that you support him and will help to get him additional support so that he can address any confusion or concerns about safe behaviors and his feelings. At the same time, you can share your concern for the girl he harmed, as well as your values regarding harming others and taking responsiblity.
Besides involving him with a counselor, continue to have discussions with him around sexual development, relationships, consent and safe boundaries. Talk to him about your expectations, and ask him for his feedback. This doesn’t mean he won’t make mistakes, but it’s important that he’s able to learn to think critically of how his behaviors may affect other people before acting on them. Also, does he have somewhere safe and age-appropriate to get his questions about sex and sexuality answered, currently? Teens aren’t always comfortable asking parents questions, so you may want to check out these resources, and pass them on to your son.
- Info for Teens (Planned Parenthood): Information for teenagers about their changing bodies, sexual and reproductive health, relationships, and consent.
- All About Consent (Planned Parenthood): Video and information on consent, rape and assault.
- Sex, Etc.: An organization by teens for teens that has articles and videos on identity, masturbation, sex, and what’s normal and healthy for your body.
- Consent Toolkit (WCASA): Information and resources broken down by age group for parents and educators.
Having conversations with your son about these issues isn’t easy, and probably will make you both feel awkward. But it is so very important. Your son is still growing and learning – and he still needs you to help him hone his critical thinking skills. Do you know if he’s been watching pornography? Though this may feel like a private topic, it’s vital for your son to have a healthy source of information that mimics what real-world relationships look like – and though many teenagers watch porn, that doesn’t mean it’s safe or okay for their growing brains. I’ve included some additional helpful resources that can help you as you think about continuing these discussions with your son.
- Why Sexuality Education Is An Important Part Of A Safety Plan
- Ten Things To Remember When You Talk To Kids About Sexuality
- Healthy Sexual Development Resources
- Parent Tip Sheets (It’s Time We Talked): Downloadable PDF tip sheets for caregivers to start the conversation with their kids about pornography.
It’s also possible that right now he may be feeling very badly about his actions and how he may have hurt his friend. I think talking to him about this, too, would be important – you don’t need to shame him, but instead focus on how his actions were inappropriate and harmful to his friend. Ask him how he thinks she feels, and why she reacted the way she did. Ask him, also, what he thinks he could have done differently – and how, knowing what he knows now, what decision he would have made if he had a chance to do it over. Though he can’t change the past, he can learn from his mistakes and make better choices the next time he is in a similar situation.
I’m also so glad to hear that you’ve already gotten a counselor involved for him, as this will be one critical way that he’s able to take accountability for his actions. In time, his counselor can help him name what he did, describe the harm he caused, and to also explore how this has affected him too. His relationship with his friend is drastically changed, and that is sad – right now he may feel very lonely and isolated, especially with what’s happening at school and on social media.
Supports Moving Forward
And in those respects, I must say I am worried. This type of online and offline bullying is what can crush a youth’s self-esteem and sometimes contributes to a young person thinking about self-harm. While I'm unsure if the school could help in this situation in terms of the online harassment, I’m wondering if you have spoken to them about what’s happened with your son, and if they can help minimize some of the teasing and name-calling at school. This concern extends to your daughter as well, and we want to do everything we can to support her as well. It’s also possible that your children’s school guidance counselors can also help them during the school day. You may also want to pass on this resource to both your children so that they have somewhere to talk (confidentially), anytime day or night, with counselors that are trained to work with youth on whatever is going on for them: Your Life Your Voice. They can be reached by dialing 1.800.448.3000, and they also have email, chat and text through their website.
For yourself, I do want you to know that it is only normal to react as you did when first hearing this disclosure from your son’s friend. It is natural to want to downplay our children’s behaviors and certainly, we’ve all been exposed to a lot of “boys will be boys” type of thinking – but more than ever, we are seeing the impact of not believing survivors or taking their experience seriously. While I’m not defining this girl’s experience or labeling what happened as a sexual assault, this does illustrate why these situations can often be confusing between young people, especially when they have been friends.
It is understandable that you initially reacted as you did, but you have an opportunity now to talk with this girl’s mother and let her know how serious you are taking this, and that you are committed to helping your son learn more about what he did so that he never again crosses boundaries and harms anyone again. While you of course are not accountable for your son’s behaviors, you are responsible for guiding him to help and support so that he can be a safe person.
Stop It Now!
Last edited on: March 27th, 2019