Gianna Russo-Mitma: Concrete Strategies for Creating Healthy, Assertive Youth

01 Feb 2018 11:09 AM | Moira Ryan (Administrator)

The year of 2018 is here, but somehow, everyday feels like it’s 1955. It has now been almost one whole year with a new administration, a new political climate, and new issues arising everyday. However, many of these issues have been all too familiar for many folks, and those issues are just coming to the surface for so many others. I’m talking about sexism. 

With almost each day bringing “shocking” news of some male in power abusing women, folks are asking “Why didn’t she say anything for 10 years? Why does he have to lose his career? Do we even know if this is true?” (I write the word shocking in quotations because this news is nothing new for the folks who have experienced this.) It’s just another day of a man who happened to get in trouble. This is not the case for non-celebrities. Years and lifetimes go by without many women saying anything. And we wonder why. Maybe because we didn’t ask: “Is she ok? How can I help? What systemic and societal issues are at play with this? What am I doing to help or hinder this issue?”

This is also certainly not the case when women of color come forward. There is still an imbalance of power in society in which women of different races are believed in different degrees with their sexual assault allegations. Even with the #MeToo campaign, we lost sight as a society that this movement was actually created in 2007 by woman of color Tarana Burke, and not a white celebrity.

While there is controversy about the #MeToo campaign (feeling guilt if we don’t say something, feeling nervous that people will judge us if we come forward, wanting to stand up for women and share that it happens all too often, fear of normalizing and just “dealing with this part of society”), the helpful part was that the world realized that sexual harassment and sexism has happened to almost every woman unfortunately, and why it took so many disclosures to do so is not really progress, but this is the world we have for now, and progress can create change. 

Many parents come into session and ask me questions from “Will this even harm them?” to “What can I do to protect my children from sexism in society?” As an advocate for youth in so many aspects of my career and life, I feel a duty and passion to work with youth on these topics because they are so impressionable with anything they hear, anything that is done or said  to them, and they are aware of what is going on in society (more aware than many folks give them credit for). 

Is this the world you want for your kids?

There are so many things that we can do as therapists, parents, and role models of youth today. We can teach (and model to) our clients the proper ways to communicate, discuss sexism in both subtle and overt ways, how to treat others respectfully, and how to spread the concept of equity. So, listen up, you awesome counselors! Below are some easy, useful ideas of what to talk to parents about, and what to model to your clients (of all genders, races, and ages). As we know, youth develop fast, so the sooner we start this, the better:

-Instead of “gendering” things like toys, clothes, jobs, and activities, let kids play with toys they want to, rather than restrict their play and imagination to just pink or just blue (or what section of the store you found the toy in)

-When asking kids what they want to be when they grow up, don’t start to give “gendered jobs” of the past, and start using terms like firefighter, instead of “fireman,” or flight attendant instead of “stewardess”, etc. 

-Refrain from asking which “boys” or “girls” they think are cute in class because the language we use can send a heteronormative (non-accepting of non-straight couples) message

-Avoid making jokes (even if you think your kid is out of earshot) about genders that are actually harmful (i.e. women belong in the kitchen jokes) or enabling unhealthy behaviors because of gender (“that’s just what boys do”), or making any racial jokes as this shows races being above each other (why I have to say this in 2018 is beyond me); this is actually a part of rape culture (Rape Culture & Sexism)

-Teach that the word “no” is completely acceptable and they should use it when they want, especially when feeling uncomfortable. In fact, practice saying "no" more often because chances are, we sometimes don’t say “no” at the risk of hurting someone’s feelings or we want to be “polite” 

-Teach and model healthy social boundaries: They don't have to hug people if they don't want to (and neither do you). Here is how to talk with kids about consent. Also, here is how to talk with older youth and adults about consent. Because unconscious does not mean consent, and sex is not to be expected for being nice or buying someone something

-Explain that we don’t need to be or say “sorry” for things that aren't our fault, and don’t be ”sorry" because you think you are a burden (Ask yourself “why am I sorry?”). Teach to apologize for wrong-doings that are actually their fault

-Understand and teach that it is completely acceptable for ALL humans to have feelings and express them (yes, I’m talking about crying — boys do it, too)

-Do not victim blame. Don't ask what anyone was wearing if they have been assaulted, or what a woman’s financial standing was, or what ethnicity she was. This also includes not slut shaming. A person’s value has absolutely nothing to do with the number of sex partners they have. If you are confused about any of this language, look at any comments section of a news story about a woman coming forward about a male in power sexually abusing her

-Do not body or fat shame (toward others, your kids, or yourself). Place value on other human characteristics and not just looks (intelligence, athleticism, musical talent, humor, goals, strengths, etc.). As therapists and parents, we also have to work on not shaming our own bodies either (kids and teens mimic what you do, not what you say)

-Sexting: So many clients have told me how violating this feels. Teach youth that sending pictures of privates parts or mentioning private parts is assaultive and violates folks’ boundaries

-Teach, model, and practice assertiveness— stand up for what you want, what you believe in, and what you will and will not accept from others

-Even though this one feels scary, work to correct others when they behave in an oppressive way (anything mentioned above). Your future self and your children will thank you

-Educate yourself and the youth around you on the Gender Wage Gap. Depending on when you read this article, for every $1.00 that white males make, white women are making about 77 cents, black women are making about 64 cents, and Latina women are making about 56 cents. Here is a video of kids explaining this concept— it so clearly shows that even with a wage gap, many of them think that women deserve this because that is what society has modeled

-And last, but MOST importantly: Understand your own privilege and power in society.

There are so many more ideas that we can utilize, but this article had to fit somehow! The main theme among these ideas is healthy modeling and starting it all right now. We can teach our kids 1,000,000 things, but what they learn comes from how they see us (and society) act and react

If we work to better ourselves and strive for social justice and equity, our children will emulate this, and we can have hope for healthier generations to come. With powerful ideas, change can begin with people that believe in those ideas. 

Now get out there and change the world! 

Gianna Russo-Mitma, M.S., LMFT, is ORCA’s President Elect. She has a private practice in Portland working with teen girls and self-esteem, and co-parents after separation and divorce. She teaches various classes as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Portland and at Portland State University. 

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