I am a survivor of sexual assault and a certified assault counselor who has worked with thousands of survivors. The single most important thing you can do if you find out your child has experienced sexual assault is to protect—and believe— them. Not believing them is the first form of harm in their recovery.
Child must come first
This undoubtedly is an extremely terrible thing for your child to experience and as much as you want to get revenge on the person who caused them harm—you must put that attention on your child and what they are experiencing. It is less about justice—while still important and shouldn’t be ignored—and more about your child’s recovery. Make sure your child is surrounded by adults who are emotionally there for them. There will be many people who don’t believe them. They need adults around them that can reassure them that they are believed and say to them: “whatever the outcome is, I am always with you.” Get your child help from a certified counselor. Listen to them. Talk to them. Don’t get caught up your own anger. Get yourself help. Find a licensed counselor that you can turn to for support so you can better help your child.
Your actions as an adult are extremely important to your child’s recovery. Negative or inappropriate responses by family members to a survivor of sexual assault can have profound effects on the child’s ability to recover. Things such as pressure to press charges when he/she/they are embarrassed and want to keep it quite, pressure to remain silent to others or deny that it happened when they feel ready to share, disbelief or distrust in the action itself, etc. can lead to shattering of family relationships and more incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to research by Dr. Sarah E. Ullman published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly.
There are many resources out there for victims and their families— use them. Make sure you take the time to care for yourself so you can be there for your child. Don’t pressure them to “get over it,” and don’t give them a time limit — every victim is different and recovers at their own rate in their own time. Keep hope. Remember your child can recover with the right support.
It is important as a parent that you open the doors of communication about sexual assault and what exactly that means with your children. Starting the conversation early with them will help prepare them in case they are ever faced with an uncomfortable situation they aren’t sure of, and it will also help them to feel safe speaking to you about it.
In my past 10 years as a sexual assault counselor, I have coached many parents on having this extremely sensitive conversation. It is hard for both parties and there are a few things every parent should follow:
1.)Plan a time to sit down and talk as soon as possible. Don’t wait until your child hits puberty. They need to know what is right and what is wrong and what they can do to feel safe.
2.)Get your mental game in order. Before you even think about having this conversation think about the words: sexual assault. Say them. How does that make you feel? You want to make sure you are calm and collected when speaking with your child so you don’t make them more uncomfortable.
3.)Define sexual assault. Make sure you know exactly what sexual assault, rape, catcall, stalking, etc. means so you can explain it properly to your child. You might not want to think about it but it is important that you do. You are the leader of the family and you need to get comfortable before you approach your children.
4.)Know your resources and develop a protocol. Think about what you will do if your child discloses that he/she/they has been assaulted. Contact child protective services, visit a hospital or doctor for a Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit, more commonly known as a “rape kit,” to preserve evidence. In many counties the survivor has the option to press charges and they don’t have to until they are ready. Do your research.
5.) Know the rights of an assault survivor. Many states have survivors advocates. You can also contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673. Take some time to do an internet search, write out your resources and your plan so you are more prepared for the worst.
This is an extremely difficult topic to approach with your child, but also extremely important. They need the correct information and the best place for them to get that is you. They need to know they have someone on their side who will fight for them if something happens. They need to know they have a safe place to turn.
Sexual assault is a very real thing, and unfortunately, sometimes our children fall victim to it. So why if they were hurt, would they not come forward and talk to us—especially since we are their parent. We love them and want to protect them, and it can be hard to understand why they would keep something like this a secret.
Similar to the reasons why our teens don’t open up to us, there are some obstacles to sharing this super sensitive and scary information. Not only is it uncomfortable to talk about but our kids fear they will get in trouble if they give all the details. Maybe it happened at a party they weren’t supposed to be at, or out with friends they weren’t supposed to be out with. They may have gotten drunk or did drugs and they fear consequences. They don’t want to be blamed for being a victim and they surely don’t want to get in trouble for being or doing things they know are wrong.
They also want to protect us. Our kids, believe it or not, love us similarly to the way we love them. They don’t want to hurt us and they don’t want to see us get upset. They want to protect us from distress. They know how upset their parents will be when they hear their child has been treated this way. Us parents don’t know how to deal with this kind of thing. We start to feel like we are to blame, we might have intense feelings of wanting to “kill” the perpetrator, we want to be reactive to the situation. There is no protocol to deal with this kind of horrible experience. Parents want to protect their children forever and always, and our kids don’t want us to feel like we aren’t doing that.
The best thing we can do is start the conversation with our children. Open the doors to communication so they feel that no matter what they can come to us. Be sensitive with them. Be calm. Let them know that if they are ever sexually assaulted they need to tell someone.
Check back tomorrow for our post on preparing to talk to your children about sexual assault, and opening those lines of communication.
If you are a parent of a teen, chances are you have felt out-of-the-loop at some point or another. You feel like your teen doesn’t talk to you anymore. They don’t tell you anything. They don’t include you on what is happening at school, in relationships, or with friends. They don’t share their worries or their stresses. They lock themselves in their rooms or hide behind their phones and shut you out.
But, why? Why is it that teens don’t talk to their parents?
1.) They don’t want to get in trouble — This one comes up a lot in therapy. We teach them courage. We help them look at what is better: hiding the problem and making things worse, or coming clean, taking responsibility and facing things head on.
2.) They don’t have the communication skills— They simply don’t know how to talk about a subject, they don’t know how to approach it when speaking with a parent. In therapy we teach teens communication skills. We teach them how to be effective communicators and to think things through before starting the discussion.
3.) They want to protect us — They don’t want us to feel uncomfortable or to worry about them. They don’t want to feel like they are adding more to your plate. In therapy, we teach teens that it is up to the adult to protect the child, not the other way around.
4.) They fear judgment — They worry what are mom/dad going to think of me. They worry about disappointing their parents. In therapy, we teach that it is ok to be authentic and we help them to navigate judgment in a healthy way.
5.) They want to be independent— They are teenagers. Of course, they want to feel like they are on their own. They think it’s cool to not tell their parents things. They want to figure it out on their own. In therapy, we teach healthy independence and when it is ok to ask for help.
We want our teens to feel comfortable sharing things with us. The best thing you can do as a parent to help facilitate conversation is to be calm and approachable. Don’t jump to conclusions. Take your child to do special things, like go out for coffee or go for a walk in the park or to get ice cream. Those things will give them a place where they will feel more comfortable opening up to you. You can always seek out the help of a licensed counselor to help your child learn healthy coping and communication skills.
When doing therapy with teens, I often hear from parents that they don’t want their “kid to feel uncomfortable.” They do want their teen to learn how to relax, to be less anxious, to cope with their feelings. But, they don’t want uncomfortable topics to come up. They shy away because they think they are protecting their child.
Parents often ask why I would approach uncomfortable topics in therapy. The truth is we don’t want to discourage these topics from being talked about. When we avoid these things, we are sending the message to our kids that they can’t come to us to express themselves. It makes them want to protect us, adults, since we are the ones uncomfortable talking about these things.
Our teens need to know that they have a place to come and talk and share their experiences, their fears, their worries. They don’t need to learn the courage to talk about these subjects. They need to have the courage to tackle them.
Uncomfortable things happen to everyone. We all think things, worry about things and are faced with things that are confusing, stressful, and awkward to share. Our teens especially are faced with these situations because they are in an awkward growth period of their lives. With a lot going on in friendships, relationships, and themselves. They need to feel safe to approach these topics so they can come up with healthy solutions to tackle them. By discouraging the discussion of things because they are “uncomfortable” we are forcing our children to go elsewhere for solutions or to keep it all trapped inside.
How do you approach things that are “uncomfortable” with your teen?
As a parent, I understand that “I know what my child needs” feeling. We are, after all, the ones who have been with them since they were born. We have changed their diapers, kissed their boo-boos, and held their hand every step of the way. So, when the time comes where you find out your teen might not always need you the way you think, it can be hard.
I had a parent of a teen say to me once, “my teen told me she talked about XYZ during therapy. I have never heard about those things. That’s not even the issue, her issues are ABC. I know, because I am her mom!” I told the parent how great it was that her teen was confiding in her and opening up to her about what she had talked about in therapy. Then I asked how the parent approached the conversation. She said, “I told her that she should have talked about ABC.”
Ask what is important to them?
Sometimes as parents we are looking too much at the big picture and we miss the fundamental details. We think we are helping but we are actually not. We forget to look at what matters to our child, our teenager. We fail to ask what is important to them?
I asked the parent how she felt that the teen was opening up to her about what she was talking about in therapy, and expressing what was important to her? The parent stopped for a minute, stunned. She admitted that she had never thought of things that way. She was spending too much time hovering that she missed the opportunity her teen was giving her to connect. You don’t need to hover, you don’t need to be the “cool” parent, sometimes you just need to be a “still” parent. Take it in, be the ears your teen needs instead of inserting what you think you know they need.
If you are a newly single mom, I am guessing you have just been through hell. Your whole world has been shaken up, unraveling your day-to-day. Now it is time to find your new normal.
You are probably feeling all sorts of things. You might be bitter, sad, or depressed. You might also be relieved or feel rejuvenated because you can start to make positive changes in your world. But, what about your kids? They are probably struggling emotionally and you are struggling with how to keep things as normal as possible for them. You also might be faced with doing everything on your own. Maybe your ex has completely left the picture, or only helps on weekends. So what do you do? How can you regain your sanity? Take care of your mental health?
The best tip I can give is to focus only on the important things and let the rest slide. No one is going to die from fishing semi-dirty clothes from the laundry (be sure to wash that underwear, though). Who cares if you need to have microwave dinner for a week or two while you adjust. Let your kids help to prepare their lunches if they are old enough. If it is not a life or death safety issue, let it go.
Now is the time to focus on your kids. Spend time together and figure out that new normal. There will be bumps and hurdles but you will get to a point of peace again. Take your kids to family therapy and talk about what that “new normal” might look like. This is not an easy time in your journey through life but you can get through it if you focus on the important things.
It is always important to take care of your mental health, but now it is even more crucial. You need to take care of you in order to be the best mom you can be for your children. Talk to your friends, find people who are going through the same thing as you and connect. Lean on your village and take it a day at a time.
What is something that has helped you as a single parent?
Being a single mom is incredibly hard. It is doing it all, being everything for your children, and it is taxing on yourself. The reality is nobody actually decides “yes I want to be a single mom,” “yes, I want to do this by myself.” It is not a choice. It is something that comes as a result of another decision—whether it be getting divorced from your spouse, deciding not to marry the child’s father because of your relationship with him, or feeling like you have no other way to have children except to do it on your own. It is the absence of a partner but it is not a direct choice.
I was raised by my single mom. She had choices to not be a single mom. She could have chosen to stay in an unhappy relationship so that she didn’t have to care for me by herself. Instead I would hear her cry in the middle of the night because this gig is hard. But it was something she needed to do for us, for herself.
Of course she would have preferred to have someone to help split the parenting duties. Or course she wanted to give us a stable home. But she also wanted to show us that she wasn’t willing to give up on her ideals. That she was strong. That she wasn’t going to compromise her happiness to stay in an unhappy relationship. She was showing us to stand up for yourself and to follow your heart, as hard as it can be sometimes. She did make choices. Very difficult ones. But it was never about a desire to parent by herself.
The other day my daughter’s stuffed animal got “hurt” and she brought it to me to comfort. I did what I always do and cuddled it, rubbed its head, told it everything would be ok, and gave it back to my daughter. Why would I do this with a stuffed animal? Isn’t it just a stuffed toy, a transitional object?
The truth is to my child it is so much more than that. This stuffed toy gives my child comfort, it is an extension of her. By showing that I also love and care for this object that means so much to her, I am showing her that she can trust me with what is important to her. It is a parents way of showing their child they can trust us with their vulnerability. They don’t need to worry about us disregarding the things that are important to them. We love the things that are important to them, because we love them.
Showing our children that we care for their favorite stuffed animal, blanket, car, whatever it is that they carry around with them for comfort and security is a way of getting down on their level to show our love. Children don’t always understand and look at things the same way as we do, by showing we love the things that give them comfort we are in turn showing our utmost respect and care.
What was your object of comfort as a child?
Letter from concerned client: I decided to leave my hometown and move to accomplish my career goals, and now I really miss my family. My parents are getting old and they don’t understand why I decided to leave and not stay with them. My mom has always told me to ‘live simple’ and despite not agreeing with my decision to move she still supports me. It makes me feel even more guilty, like I am letting them down.
Mabel: I understand your desire to make your parents proud. You said your mom wanted you to ‘live simple’ but still supports you in your goal, however hard it may be to attain that goal. It is a little like how I wanted my kids to enjoy playing music but instead, their interests are art and tennis. Even though art and tennis are not my desires, at the end of the day seeing my children enjoying and working towards their own goals makes me profoundly happy. For them, learning to master these things frustrates them a lot of the time but that is part of life and reaching a goal. You decided to move because it is important to you in the reaching of your goals, and it isn’t always easy. The process of living in a new place and working can be very frustrating. Your mother has a desire for you to live a simple and happy life because that is what she knows of happiness. Most of us mothers have our own desires, however, supporting our children in their own dream is a lesson in parenting. A lesson that it’s not about us but about the child. It is about learning how to love someone, and how to see the world beyond us. It is an important lesson for all us parents. My dream is for my children to soar in whatever they choose to do, even if I have little understanding of it. If guilt is something that weighs them down, like most mothers, I would love to take that weight off their shoulders so they can fly more freely. I am not sure if this is how your mother feels, but my hypothesis is that most mothers share these similar sentiments.