I’m featured today in the i newspaper and will be speaking about how to talk to daughters about the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa on Women’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 also.
As Sarah Everard’s rape and murder by a police officer has left the country shaken, parents are wondering how to talk to their daughters about what happened. How can we be honest with children and teenagers without making them feel debilitated by fear?
The TV presenter Fiona Bruce told The One Show in March about the difficulty of approaching this case with her own son and daughter.
“This is a problem that’s as old as humanity, and it hasn’t changed. Is it going to change? Obviously, you can’t help but worry more for your daughter than you do for your son, even though statistics show the threat is the other way round.
Sue Atkins is a parenting expert on ITV’s This Morning, and author of The Can-Do Kid’s Journal, a book that aims to instil confidence in children. “I’m usually very calm” she tells i, “but when I first saw that image of where he stopped Sarah, I burst into tears. It triggers me as an adult, as a mother, as a human. It’s also close to home because my 27-year-old daughter lives on Clapham Common, I went to school near there as a child, and so I feel very emotional about it all.”
Yet, says Atkins, it’s important not to project the emotions we feel as parents onto our children.
“We pass our panic on to our children,” she says, “so the important thing to do is sit down with a cup of coffee and think of a couple of things you’d like to tell your child if they ask you, so that you’re a bit prepared.
“The biggest gift you can give to a child is to also listen to any concerns or questions they might have. A child who feels listened to, feels understood, and then they feel safer.”
“This has flagged the idea of who do we trust, who do we need to be wary of – and there are no clear answers. We need to instil caution in them as we naturally would,” says Atkins, “without making them think everyone is out to harm them and they can’t trust anyone. That’s a damaging, terrible way to live.”
For primary school-aged children asking about the case, Atkins recommends saying: “Yes, police are here to keep us safe. It was a terrible thing that happened, but it is quite unusual.”
Younger children don’t need to know about the latest rape accusation in the police force, or that there may be a wider systemic problem. “Go for a need-to-know basis,” she says.
Another challenge for parents is that young people get a lot of news on social media, from Instagram to TikTok, and algorithms may mean they’re inundated with upsetting stories.
“As parents we need to be the counterpoint to any misinformation,” says Atkins, “and not let what is an already terrible news event become even more escalated. I’m a great believer in trying to find that elusive balance of keeping the lines of communication going so you can answer questions, and also batting back stuff that isn’t quite true that their friend said or they read on social media.”
Atkins also recommends helping them channel their feelings of fury or worry into joining activist groups, writing a blog or getting politically involved.
“I have recommended my daughter to get stuck in somehow, because then it’s easier to feel empowered and not completely helpless. If young people feel there’s no hope, it can sink them.”
Jodie Reed works in early years and education policy and has more than 15 years’ senior-level experience in Whitehall. Her 11-year-old daughter has just started getting the bus on her own.
“My generation has tended to bring our daughters up to be fearless,” she says, “telling them the world is theirs. It’s really hard to handle these realities of life without undermining all the work we’ve done. Ideally these conversations would be had with boys and girls, too, and in the end it’s about changing the behaviour of our sons.”
What is also stark is that children – and traditionally girls in particular – are brought up to be law-abiding and “good”.
“I was brought up to do as I’m told,” says Atkins, “and so all we can do is encourage children to be discerning without mistrusting every adult.”
Reed says her daughter is too old to be protected from news stories but she and her husband have decided against having a big conversation about this particular case, and she won’t be giving her daughter a “rape alarm”.
“The threat of male violence is a reality she’ll have to learn about over time,” she says, “and I think there’s a problem about attaching it to particular instances. This case is not something I want to be on a teenage girl’s mind as she walks down the street.”
Atkins agrees. “The key is to drip-feed them conversations about difficult topics as they grow up, mature and change. Don’t have a one-off conversation about police officers, adapt what you want to say as they develop.”
What is clear is that the way we talk to our daughters about the very real threats they face depends on their age and personality, and that there are no easy answers.
Here are my thoughts – what are yours?