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The time to be prepared is now.
The sexual assault of a loved one can feel paralyzing. In the aftermath of trauma, it is critical that survivors find people who will listen to, love, and support them. Here is how to show up with love and support your child survivor.
As a secondary survivor of assault, it is important for you to get the support you need, too. This resource from our partner As One Project can help.
There are several steps to take immediately after receiving a disclosure of sexual assault. The first is to respond to your child in a way that prioritizes their safety and well-being. Whether the assault happened minutes prior, or weeks, months or even longer ago, your feelings at hearing this disclosure must take a back-seat to acting in a productive and loving way. Do not underestimate the trauma your child feels in disclosing to you, even if an assault happened some time ago.
We recommend using the A.B.L.L.E.™ phrases: affirm the survivor, believe them, let them lead the conversation, listen, and extend only what you can.
Once you have responded to your child’s disclosure in a loving and affirming way, consider the next steps your child can take, like undergoing a sexual assault forensic examination and reporting to law enforcement. There are implications to these decisions, and some are more time sensitive than others. Be equipped with information from a reputable source, such as a child advocate from your local coalition against domestic and sexual violence. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center and the National Sexual Assault hotline can also be sources of immediate support. These organizations can connect you and your child with trained advocates to help your child consider their options.
It is important to note that adults are mandatory reporters of sexual assault against a minor, although not a person 18 or older. While this means you are required to report the assault to law enforcement, it does not mean your child must proceed with filing charges. That step can happen at a later date.
Above all, remember that your child has the right to make decisions regarding their recovery and any next steps. Your job as a parent is to support them, love them, and put their needs and desires before your own.
The golden rule when supporting your child after an assault is to keep them at the center of their recovery. It can be easy for parents to encourage their children to do what they want them to do when recovering from a trauma like sexual assault. The key to supporting your child, however, is to put your child’s needs and desires before your own.
This means respecting the choices your child makes regarding pressing charges against the perpetrator, to undergo or forgo an examination, to return to school immediately or to take some time at home. Though your job as parent is to guide and support your child in their decision-making, ultimately, the course that the survivor chooses to chart for their recovery is solely their decision to make.
Putting your child’s needs first also means enveloping your child in love and support from other trusted, trauma-informed individuals. Find a counselor who has experience and training working with survivors of sexual assault. Engage the help and support of family or family friends who your child knows and trusts. Act as gatekeeper against peers, teachers, or other individuals who do not have your child’s best interests at heart. Telltale signs of these individuals are phrases like “this isn’t that big of a deal”, or “suck it up and move on,” or “think about how much speaking out could harm the perpetrator.“ These phrases are an indication that an individual does not belong in your or your child’s immediate circle. Kindly see them out.
A word of caution: be careful about how you communicate your child’s assault to their school, if your child chooses to do so. Most administrators, educators, and even school counselors are not equipped or trained to respond to such a disclosure. Oftentimes, premature conversations with these individuals can be a detriment to a survivor’s recovery.
Life will never go back to the way things were for your child or family. However, it is possible that as your child and family begin to heal, your family as individuals and as a whole will become stronger and more capable of authentic love. At I Have The Right To, we see this again and again in our work with survivors and their families.
To visualize the healing and growth that is possible after a sexual assault, we often refer to the art of kintsugi.
Kintsugi, which literally means “to join with gold,” is also referred to as the art of “golden repair.” It treats breakage and the resulting repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to discard or disguise. In kintsugi, the broken pieces of an accidentally-smashed pot are carefully picked up, reassembled, and then glued together with lacquer inflected with a luxuriant gold powder. There is no attempt to disguise the damage but rather to emphasize the fault lines as beautiful and strong. The precious veins of gold that remain long after the repair become the focal point of the piece, not something to hide.
The same is possible for your family following a child’s sexual assault: one day, with the proper work and effort, the family vessel that feels shattered before you will glisten even more beautifully than before. We are here to help this be so.
Too often survivors and families are siloed and isolated in seeking healing and justice following a child’s sexual assault. If you are a parent and care about supporting your survivor, you are not alone. We are here for you. While we are not always able to connect parents to other parents due to privacy concerns, we can suggest other ways to find community based on your specific circumstance. We also have one of our own in the works. Stay tuned!
Recovery from a trauma like sexual assault is rarely linear and uniform. Every recovery looks different based on the circumstance, survivor, and broader family. However, parents can be informed about the stages of recovery and know what to expect in each one. Here’s a starting point.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs when a past trauma affects present behavior. Though PTSD will look different for every survivor, in general, PTSD symptoms fall into four categories: re-experiencing, avoidance, arousal and reactivity, and cognition and mood. Learn more about each category of symptom, what to look for in your child, and how to help your child manage any symptoms that present..
Talking about sexual assault is uncomfortable. And yet doing so is vitally important to keeping our children safe at school. Here is what to ask your child’s school about its policies to prevent and respond to sexual assault.
Know of a case of student activism that isn’t reflected on the map? Tell us by sharing a news story.
Sexual assault is the term given to the crime of a nonconsensual sexual act, including if an individual lacks the capacity to consent. (For more on consent, read the FAQ below). Talking to your children about sexual assault is difficult and may make you feel uncomfortable, but you can be proactive and positive about it. Your early and ongoing intervention may be the only reminder your child has about their right to feel safe at school. Here is a guide to initiating this conversation.
Consent is an agreement between participants to engage in any form of sexual activity. It goes further. According to the Consent Awareness Network, consent must be a freely given, knowledgeable, and informed agreement without force, fear, or fraud. Consent can be withdrawn at any time. Individuals who are under the age of consent, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or unconscious cannot legally give consent. Further, the absence of a “no” does not equal a “yes,” and consent by someone’s body language or their dress or state of dress cannot be taken as consent.
Consent should be a continuous dialogue between participants to ensure their experience is positive and safe.
A related concept to be aware of as a parent is sexual coercion. Sexual coercion is unwanted sexual activity that happens when someone is pressured, tricked, threatened, or forced in a nonphysical way. A partner using coercion can make one think they “owe” sex. Common scenarios include someone who wears their partner down by repeatedly asking for sex, who lies to their partner to trick them into having sex, or who threatens to end a relationship or spread rumors if their partner doesn’t have sex with them. Another common scenario of coercion is when an authority figure (like an older student, relative, friend, teacher, coach, counselor, boss, or professor) takes advantage of a power imbalance or uses their authority to pressure someone into having sex.
Because there is so little public knowledge about sexual coercion, many women who have been sexually coerced are not aware that what happened to them qualifies as sexual assault and may instead blame themselves for their trauma. If your child said “yes” to sexual activity when they didn’t want to, know that they may have been sexually coerced and that what happened is considered an assault. Your child is not at fault.
The truth is, no one can prevent sexual assault – except the perpetrator. They alone are responsible for not sexually assaulting another human being.
However, communication is vital in your relationship with your minor: both to remind them that they have the right to feel safe at school, and to be able to spot the signs of harassment or assault if it does happen to them. Even if it feels uncomfortable to do, talk to your child in age-appropriate ways about healthy relationships, anatomy and sex, and consent. Learn other strategies to maintain strong communication with your child and model healthy relationships here.
Communication with your child’s school is equally important. Review the list of questions we recommend asking your school’s representative and be on the look-out for what we call “red flag responses.”
Get in touch with your national congressional representatives and ask them to make school sexual assault prevention a priority. Do the same for your state representatives. Consider mailing a letter or placing a phone call before sending an email; sending letters and placing calls can help your message stand out.
Learn more about the prevalence of sexual assault and how it impacts survivors.
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