Scarleteen Confidential: Supporting a Teen after Sexual Assault

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For most people, sexual assault is one of those scenarios you hope never is part of your life, or part of the life experience of someone you love. But the sad fact is that we live in a global society in which assault is still incredibly common and occurs at alarming rates, especially to young women. In the United States, girls ages 16-19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of sexual assault. Young men and boys, as well as young transgender people, are also commonly victims of sexual violence who all too often remain less visible.

What do you do if your child comes to you and says that they've been assaulted?

First, and most importantly: believe them, and do not blame them for what happened.

Survivors of assault usually face a lot of disbelief and blame from people they tell (and they are usually telling those people because they need help from them). You are their parent, and your blame or disbelief will sting doubly hard because you are supposed to be someone who cares about them and their well-being. You are not the justice system: you don't need to prove their case, or figure out if someone should or should not be prosecuted. Leave that to the justice system, should a victim choose to report.  Your job is primarily to be supportive, and to be at least one person they know believes them and is on their side.

If and when your child discloses sexual violence to you, or you otherwise find out they have been victimized, be aware that there is no single, universal set of feelings and desires that survivors go through. They may want to go to the police and bring charges against the person or people who assaulted them. They may want to go to the hospital for medical care. Or, they may just want to avoid dealing with the legal system and focus healing on their own. You may have your own opinions about what the "right" decision is, but ultimately it is up to your child to work out what will be most helpful for them. Often, the urge to push them towards a certain plan comes from a well-intended desire to help. But remember, they've already had their autonomy and wishes violated. It's important that they're able to make their own choices when it comes to deciding how they want to proceed. When someone has taken control that should be theirs taken from them, it's important to do what you can not to take more.

You may be tempted to press for details about the assault. Resist that urge, as doing so can be counterproductive in a number of ways. First, it may trigger the survivor and cause them to panic, freeze up, or otherwise have a strong, negative reaction. Two, even if it comes from a good place, questioning them extensively can begin to sound like you are looking for ways to blame them for what happened. And finally, many survivors have a difficult time recalling exactly what happened. So pushing them to tell you everything may make them flustered. If and when someone wants to tell their story, in whole and in part, they will in time, and they're most likely to do that with people who have shown them they are supportive, and respect their own process and journey in healing.

And, above all, in this conversation listen, listen, listen to them. They likely have dozens of emotions and thoughts rattling around in their brain about what happened, and having someone truly listen to how their feeling is important. This is also a good time to invoke the "one question rule." The question that is likely to be the most beneficial to both your child and you is to ask "What would you like from me?" That might be anything from a hug, to a ride to police station, to sitting with them while they take a pregnancy test. But let them tell you what they need, rather than jumping to conclusions about what they want or deciding, for them, what their needs are.

After the initial conversation, you may want to suggest getting in touch with local sexual assault survivors care resource, like a rape crisis center. Survivors are usually able to access counseling and other support there, and they have the opportunity to talk to folks knowledgeable about things such as legal recourse, victims advocates and other local support services. If nothing else, having someone who is informed who can help them work through their options and their feelings -- should they want that help -- is important. You can also look online for resources, both for survivors and their loved ones. In fact, online communities can be invaluable to survivors during the healing process, especially if the community that surrounds them in the off-line world is less than supportive. Being able to talk with others who have gone through what they've gone through, to receive support and advice that way, can go a long way towards making the healing process feel less lonely.

You may also be experiencing some heavy duty emotions yourself, from anger to depression to shock. When possible, take some time to care for yourself and process those emotions you're having. If you feel it necessary, seek out some mental healthcare for yourself,or for your family. Check with your local rape crisis center to see if they offer resource for family and friends of survivors (most do).

"I do not want to talk to my mom about my assault, because I feel like it would change everything. The person who did it was her best friend's son."

If your child was assaulted by someone you know -- and statistically, that's far more common than stranger assault -- even if they decide they don't want to pursue legal action, do not, yourself, continue to have contact with that person or make your child have to be in any contact with them. For the sake of your child, please do not stay friends (or even acquaintances) with them. I do not care if they are a long time family friend, a beloved cousin, whatever: they are now someone who has shown you that they clearly are not safe to be or have around, not for your child, not for your family. Something that makes it easy for rapists to operate is that they often face little to no social consequences for their actions, and are often enabled and allowed to hide in plain sight. They may be charming, or funny, or throw great parties. All of that pales in comparison to the fact that they intentionally harmed your child very deeply.

In a similar vein, do not push your child to forgive or otherwise reconcile with the person who hurt them. If you're feeling that forgiveness is something you want or value, take a moment to reflect on why. It may be that you are feeling the pull of cultural messages that tell survivors to "be the bigger person," and that they can never truly move on unless they forgive their perpetrator. Forgiveness is something that, should they choose to, they are welcome to do in the course of their healing. However, it is not something anyone should be or feel obligated to do. Survivors can, and do, heal just fine and move on with their lives while keeping the person who hurt them solidly in the category of "people whose funerals I would attend just to make sure they are dead." Too, you can forgive someone for what they did and still not want them anywhere near you. You're not obliged to put yourself back in the path of someone who hurt you (and might do so again) in the name of some nebulous "closure"

Many people also find that the desire for a survivor to reconcile with their assailant is because it will allow them to feel as though the matter is resolved and done with and put some of their own guilt or feelings of responsibility away. If that is what you find is driving you in this course of action, remind yourself that this situation, as much as it may affect you, is not about you or your emotions. The emotions, autonomy, and well-being of your child have to come first here: they are who was assaulted, they are who is hurting the most and in need of the most support.

Just as there is no one way to react to being assaulted, there is no one perfect way of recovering from assault. Everyon'es healing journey with sexual abuse or assault is very unique and individual. Keep this in mind as your child begins moving through their healing process. Some people find it fairly easy to go back to business as usual -- and want to do that -- while others struggle to find their footing and don't feel safe in their daily lives for weeks, months, or even many years. They may experience flashbacks, find that they have triggers that they struggle to manage and may make even usually easy basic parts of daily life terribly challenging, or find that they've managed to escape that type of aftermath. Let them move at their own pace, and do not push them to "forget" or "move past" what happened, even if that's something that you wish would occur. No one but them can control the pace at which they heal. What you can do is continue to listen to them, support them, and help create a safe space (both in the physical and metaphysical sense) in which that healing can occur.

As with so many other of the hardest parts of parenting, this is a situation where you probably need help, too. Ask local or online survivor centers or other resources about what help and support you can access. Take care of yourself and your own hard, scared, sad or angry feelings. If a sexual assault has created big conflicts or rifts within your family, seek out family help or counseling: that's good for you, and also can help keep someone who has been assaulted from feeling like they're responsible for family conflict assault or disclosing assault has created. Get and stay connected with your own support systems, and be sure that you're minding your own self-care in all of this, not only focused on caring for your child.

Further Resources