If your teen, whether a girl or a boy, has experienced sexual assault, you and your child are both deeply traumatized and hurt. And both of you may need help to heal. From Brooke Axtell, Founder and Director of Survivor Healing and Empowerment:
“I want you to know that there are many ways you can compassionately support the teen survivor in your life. 44% of sexual assault victims are under the age of 18, so we need to carefully assess the unique needs of young men and women who have endured this trauma.”
Here are some parenting suggestions to help teen sexual assault survivors. We substitute him and her at will because both genders experience assault and both girl and boy teens need empathy and support from their parents.
Be A Caring Listener
Your teen needs to trust that you won’t blame or shame him (or her) for what has happened. Learn how to be an empathic listener even when you feel angry or hurt by what you hear. Be sure to tell your teen that he or she is not to blame. If your teen did not resist the assault, that does not mean she is to blame. Remind your child that she did what she needed to do to survive and the next step is to recover. If you are not an expert on listening explore Non-Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, PhD. to learn your own coping-while-listening tools.
Encourage Your Teen To Talk About Feelings
Know that your ability to listen without blame will help your teen express the pain, anxiety, and fear associated with the assault. Also remember that Sexual abuse has many forms and all may need to be addressed when trying to help a survivor, or someone who is experiencing ongoing sexual abuse.
Victims of sexual assault are three times more likely to suffer from depression. Psychologist Dana C. Jack calls depression “the silencing of the self.” Consider finding a counselor who integrates expressive arts therapies (such as art, music or dance therapy). Creative expression helps teens connect with and process the truth of their experience. Writing as A Way of Healing by Louise A. DeSalvo and The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron are excellent sources of encouragement for a survivor who wants to heal through creative expression.
Learn And Honor New Boundary Rules
After your teen has been assaulted, he (or she) needs to feel in control of her space and body. That means not touching or hugging without asking if it’s okay. Some people don’t want to be touched. Other boundaries might include freedoms like going out, staying in touch with friends and being on social media. Discuss social media as you discuss the media in general so that your teen can put in perspective all the things she/he might hear or see relating to her. Others may lie or call her names. And make sure that you do not take away important freedoms out of your own fear. Check out the Circle of 6, a cutting-edge app that will help her stay safe.
Talk About The Media
The media has a long history in influencing the way we think about rape, bullying, gender, girls and their behavior, and girls and their looks. This needs to be explored because the media can hurt. Verbal abuse expert, Patricia Evans, says that verbal abuse occurs when someone “tells lies about who you are.” Mainstream media constantly tells lies about who girls are.
You can help your child understand how the media works and engage the teen to see how the representations of girls and women emphasize their value as sexual commodities, not as people. For excellent feminist critiques of pop culture in a teen-friendly space, check out Bitch Magazine. SPARK is an innovative organization helping girls differentiate between sexuality and sexualization.
Talk About Healthy Relationships
What do healthy and respectful relationships look like. Healthy relationships need explanation and modeling. Show your teen what healthy relationships look like, whether yours or other loving couples. Know that your teen may not understand that an assault doesn’t, and shouldn’t, be the model to be repeated in future relationships. Low self esteem resulting form sexual abuse and sexual assault needs to be addressed to prevent relationship violence in the future.
Surviving sexual assault is one of greatest predictors for your teen to eventually experience some form of relationship violence.
Be pro-active in discussing the difference between an abusive and a respectful relationship. Check out the website loveisrespect.org as well as the sex-positive teen site Scarleteen.com.
Visit the Website for Rape, Abuse, Incest Through this site you can search for your local rape crisis center and learn more about sexual assault. After connecting with your local crisis center, research recovery groups and ask for referrals. Hearing the stories of other survivors helps to heal self-blame and shame. Also, check out: Invisible Girls: The Truth About Sexual Abuse by Dr. Patti Feuereisen as a recovery companion.
Explore Spiritual Options
Faith, religion, and spiritual practices can help your teen to cultivate a personal capacity for insight understanding and acceptance. Examples of practices include yoga, tai chi, meditation and prayer. This is particularly helpful in healing dissociation, a way that trauma victims disconnect from their experience in order to survive. If your loved one has been abused by a religious figure or someone affiliated with your spiritual community, don’t push religion as a source of healing. Give your child space to discover his/her own spiritual path.
As a parent you need guidance as much as your teen. Your teen may seem angry at you. You may have given safety advice your teen didn’t follow, like dressing, drinking, associating with friends you didn’t approve of. She may feel you’re angry at her and blame her for what happened. In any case, anger is likely to surface along with guilt, shame, and the desire to hide and isolate. It’s important for both of you to defuse the heat of negative feelings and stay connected.
Remember to be compassionate and gentle with yourself and your teen during this time of recovery. Self-care is essential for both of you. Do not hesitate to reach out to a counselor or rape crisis center for support as you process what has happened. Sexual assault is devastating, but there is hope for those who make healthy recovery choices and accept help from those who have been there and know what to do.