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I'm thirteen, and my friend was raped by her father. What should I do?

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L_123 asks:

I'm 13 years old and my friend didn't go into detail, but she said she got raped by her dad(or her stepfather). she didn't tell her mom "because she'd get mad" and didn't think it would matter since her parents are getting a divorce and she'll move away with her mom soon. she doesn't want me to tell anyone and refuses to tell anyone. I can't change her mind about that because she's very stubborn.I know I should tell someone, but who should I tell?

Robin Mandell replies:

I'm really glad you want to tell someone, because I think it's really important that you do for her safety. Even if her parents are divorcing, chances are good her father or stepfather will get some sort of unsupervised visitation if there's no record or knowledge of abuse, so her abuse may not simply end with a divorce. And of course, she also will probably need some help processing all of this and getting help in healing. You're going to need some care, too: holding this from someone you care about can be really hard.

You're being a caring friend by reaching out and wanting to do something about this. I know from personal experience that it can be pretty scary to hear these kinds of stories from people we care about and not know what to do.

What Can You Do?

You can first tell a trusted adult.

To respect your friend, it's a good idea to tell her first that you feel you need to tell someone and intend to do that. You can make clear that you are worried about her, and don't want to betray her confidence, but that you don't feel you can be a good friend to her by staying silent and not doing what you can to make help available to her and make sure she stays safe from here on out. You can even tell her who you want to tell and ask if she wants to come with you, so that you're not taking her power or choices away in this.

You can also let her know, though, that it is her story to tell, and that you're willing and able to help her in that telling in whatever way she needs. If she can get on board with telling and has someone she'd prefer to tell -- like perhaps her mother -- you can offer to be there with her when she does as support. You can also offer her other options--the options we'll give you below--for someone she can tell that might feel less scary to her.

Who could you tell? Your parents or guardians are the first people I'd suggest starting with. If you're unsure how to start that conversation with them, find a quiet place or time (or request to speak privately with whomever you're most comfortable talking to) and say something like:

I really need to tell you something serious. I'm worried about [insert your friend's name] because she told me that [insert the name of her step-father] raped her. Can you help me figure out what to do and support her?

Of course, you don't have to repeat that word for word, but I put it here to give you something to start with. Sometimes starting a conversation like this, and figuring out what to say, is the hardest part.

If your folks don't seem like people who will handle this well, you could tell a teacher or guidance counselor. Even if you and your friend don't go to the same school and you feel like you want to tell someone you trust, you can talk to a teacher or guidance counselor at your school and ask them to help you get your friend some help. Other sound options are your family doctor, or you can call into a local sexual abuse or assault center and ask them for some help.

What a responsible adult should usually do when they find out about a child who is being or has been abused is call the police or children's protective services and make a report. Then those agencies can start an investigation and also assess if your friend is, now, safe where she is or not.

What are some other things you can do for your friend?

You can be there to listen. It sounds simple, but listening is one of the most caring, helpful things a friend can do. But just so you know, it's okay if you have limits around that, or find that at some point, it's just too much for you, or you can't handle it. If that happens, you can let her know you want to be there for her, but there are certain things you can only handle so much by yourself, or places where you think she might need to also be talking to someone else who can help, not just you.

You can also tell her about resources she may find helpful. There are some thoughtful and informative books written for girls and young women who have experienced rape or sexual assault. Some of these are:

  • Invisible Girls: The Truth about Sexual Abuse by Patti Feuereisen Ph.D. and Caroline Pincus
  • The Sexual Healing Journey by Wendy Maltz
  • It Happend to Me: A Teen's Guide to Overcoming Sexual Abuse by William Lee Carter

If your friend seems interested, you could offer to go to the library with her to look for these books. Remember though that it's up to her; she may not be ready or willing to reach outside of herself like that.

There are sexual assault hotlines that people can call to talk to someone knowledgeable and caring. They're free, and most of them operate 24 hours a day. Sexual assault hotlines are staffed by people who are knowledgeable about sexual assault and have been trained to give compassionate help to people who have been affected by sexual assault.

You or she can locate the closest center to her by searching here.

For more ideas on how to support your friend, take a look at these links:

Why is it important to tell even though your friend doesn't want to?

The fact that your friend's step-father raped her does matter for a lot of reasons.

  • Your friend needs medical attention to check for physical injuries, as well as to test for pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
  • Rape is a traumatic event, especially when perpetrated by a family member (and the fact that there is a divorce involved makes things even more complicated), and your friend needs help and support both from professionals and from her family and friends to heal, sooner rather than later.
  • Relatedly, it's good that your friend will be away from her step-father, but if she'll still be seeing him at all, that could be dangerous for her and people need to know that.
  • What that man did was illegal.
  • Your friend's mother would want to know what happened to her daughter.

You might be wondering why your friend says it doesn't matter and I'm saying it does.

What your friend is expressing though is a very typical reaction to sexual abuse and assault, which is denial.

One way people who have been sexually abused or assaulted can react or feel is to diminish the impact of what happened to them, or even deny what happened to them was a big deal, or that it happened at all. Someone, like your friend is expressing, can want to pretend it didn't happen to avoid having to think about or really feel the physical and emotional pain. As well, if and when people grow up with any kind of abuse, it can seem normal to them: it's hard to know what's really wrong with something if a given experience has been your normal.

But even if someone is in a space where it feels like it isn't a big deal, or like they can just move past it without help, most people who have experienced sexual abuse, all the more so when it happens within families, will be deeply impacted by that abuse, often for the whole of their lives. Someone who says they are just fine usually isn't, and will usually need to find ways to work on healing from that abuse, often needing qualified help to do that.

I don't say these things in order to scare you. It's pretty clear to me that you know that what your friend's step-father did was wrong, and you know her keeping it a secret probably isn't a good thing for her. I want you to know that while it might feel like breaking a confidence to tell people when your friend told you not to, you're doing something that will most likely be helpful to her both now and in the future.

What we know about rape and sexual assault is that keeping silent about it afterwards, keeping it a secret, can take a significant emotional toll on the person who experienced the assault. Breaking that silence is, for many, the start on the path of healing. You can help your friend break that silence.

Really and truly I wish I didn't have to say this next bit, and I very much hope that it doesn't end up happening like this.

You do need to know that your friend might be upset with you, might possibly be very angry with you, for telling someone and for setting things in motion to get her help. She's using the silence, the reasons she's given for why it's not important to talk about it, as a way to protect herself, even though, in reality, it probably isn't protecting her at all. When people find out, she's very likely going to feel frightened and vulnerable, and may take those scared feelings out on you.

Should your friend show anger at you for telling a trusted adult what happened to her, you can tell her that you're sorry for how it feels right now. You can say that you know it hurts and is scary, that you care, and you want her to get help.

If you truly feel that telling someone is the right thing to do, then I think leading with your own judgment that way is a good idea. If she does lash out at you, keep reminding yourself that you feel you did a good thing. Say it exactly like that if you need to. "I believe I did a good thing." It sounds silly, I know, but it really can help to repeat something like that to yourself. It's also okay for it to hurt. Don't be afraid to have a good cry or get mad in a safe place if your friend lashes out at you or doesn't seem to appreciate the help you're offering her. You can recognize that this is full of difficult and loaded thoughts and feelings for her while still acknowledging your own thoughts and feelings too.

It's also really important to take care of you

As I said above, I know, both from the professional work I've done with sexual assault survivors and those who care about them, and through personal experience, that it can be really tough hearing about, and knowing that your friend was sexually assaulted. It can bring up all sorts of emotions including fear, a sense of helplessness, anxiety, guilt, and a whole bunch of other confusing emotions. Sometimes, for example, people feel bad and guilty because the person they care about was hurt and they're still okay. Sometimes people can feel afraid; knowing someone who has been sexually assaulted can make us feel more vulnerable to being asaulted ourselves; in other words, we hear about assault on the news, but it feels a lot more real when we know someone who has experienced rape or other assault.

Throughout all of this, it's really important that you have people who will care for you and help you with the thoughts and feelings you're having.

Some of the ways you can do this are:

  • Talk to a guidance counsellor or trusted teacher at school.
  • Call a sexual assault hotline. Most hotlines also offer services to friends and family members of people who have been assaulted, and it can often be helpful to talk to someone who is completely outside the situation but who is trained to understand it.
  • Come talk to staff, volunteers, and other young people at our message boards Many of us have experienced sexual assault ourselves, or have been very close to people (friends or family members) who have, or both.
  • Remember to do things you enjoy. It's really important to turn off our emotions sometimes and just do things that feel good. Maybe for you that's getting lost in a good book. Maybe it's turning up the music in your room and dancing around. Maybe it's doing something artistic like writing stories, singing, drawing, or something else entirely.
written 04 Oct 2012 . updated 05 Oct 2012

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