How to Help as a Parent
Learning that your child has experienced sexual violence is shocking. It is natural to feel angry, and your instincts may be to take control to protect your child. It is important for you to understand that sexual assault is an exertion of power and control — the best way to help your child is to give them the freedom and control to make their own decisions and choices about how to proceed.
Here are some strategies that you may find useful as you seek to help your child to recover from this trauma.
What can you do?
- Believe your child. It can be very difficult for a survivor to come forward and share their story. Your reaction may impact whether or not your child chooses to continue to share this information with others and seek further support. State that you believe them and you want to support them in any way that you can.
- Do not ask “Why?” Why didn’t you…? Why did you…? All “why” questions have the tendency to shut down communication to the detriment of your child’s recovery and your relationship with your child.
- Assure your child that the assault is not their fault. Self-blame is common among victims of sexual violence. It is important that, as their parent, you help your child understand that no matter what happened—it was not their fault. It can be very difficult for parents to hear the circumstances of an assault, especially if alcohol or drugs, previous forms of consensual sex, or any other activities you do not approve of were involved. Keep judgment to yourself for the time being. Right now, your child needs your unequivocal support. Understand that your child is carefully watching for your reactions, both verbal and non-verbal. If there is any indication that you do not believe or that you do not accept what is being said, this will greatly diminish your child’s ability to continue.
- Allow your child to control next steps. You may provide advice, guidance, and information about their options for additional support, but allow them to decide if, when, and how they will pursue these resources. Support whatever decisions your child makes. Be sure to discuss which other family members will be told, and respect your child’s decision on the matter.
- Understand that the recovery process is unique to your child. The length of the recovery period will depend greatly on the individual. Support your child for as long as they need it.
- Take care of yourself. Supporting your child through a trauma can be a difficult and emotionally draining experience. Don’t hesitate to seek help and support for yourself when you need it.
- Listen actively and non-judgmentally. When listening, it is natural to think of many questions. You’ll feel compelled to gather as much information as possible about what transpired, but it is important to respect your child’s boundaries and not ask for details. In the case of sexual assault, it is best to allow the survivor to control what and how much they share. Let your child know that you are there to listen and support, but they control when and how much they wish to say.
- Recognize that time may have passed before your child consulted you. Don’t let this become an issue. “Why didn’t you tell us sooner?” will not be perceived as a supportive statement. Your child’s reason for not telling you sooner may have been fear of your reaction, and you don’t want to shut down the opportunity for your child to share.
(via Sexual Violence Support and Resource, Colgate University)