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.
Sometimes scary things happen to us. It can happen to us on an unknown path we take, or in a familiar place we love. When bad things happen to us, we start to question everything around us. We question why this happened to us. We question the validity and fairness of the world. The world becomes different. What are we suppose to do in a world that is no longer safe?
When bad things happen to us, our sense of security is under siege and our defense mechanism is on high alert. Even the nice warm summer wind we used to love can make the hairs on our back stand up. We guard ourselves tightly to the point we can no longer feel.
When bad things happen to us, we may question if there’s something we could have done differently. We desperately attempt to salvage the control we once had but lost. Our mind keeps replaying the fearful scenario that we no longer have room for joy. It’s hard to breathe; even the air feels heavy.
I understand because I have been there. I know therapy can help. With therapy, you can learn to breathe again, slow down the replay in the mind, learn to trust the world, and believe in yourself. You can move from “what was” to “what can be.”
With therapy, You can live again.