Being a supportive parent can be difficult, as balancing the needs of your child with your own is often challenging. Violence does not happen in a vacuum—like a pebble dropped into a lake, the impact causes ripples to spread through the surrounding droplets of water. When a sexual assault occurs, the person who was assaulted is not the only one affected—the violence that person experienced affects her/his relationships with others. As a parent, you may want to do everything possible to protect your child, or feel conflicted about what your child has told you if you also know the assailant.
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Processing How You Feel About the Assault
You may want to believe your child but find yourself struggling to do so. Thoughts such as "Well she shouldn’t have gotten that drunk," "She shouldn’t have been in that person’s room to begin with," or "Why wouldn’t he jump on the chance to have sex? All boys his age want sex" are common. Reading more about rape myths can help you understand how many of the things we see and hear in the media help create ideas about sexual assault that place blame on the victim rather than on the rapist. No one should rape anyone else—the fact that people do rape other people is the problem, not what the victim was doing or wearing or whether we think (s)he should have “wanted” sex. Many rapists actively look for opportunities to take advantage of situations in which a person is vulnerable, and none of us can be completely invulnerable at every moment of every day, nor should we have to be. Your child is at school to learn, but also to make lifelong friendships, and it is highly likely that someone violated the trust your child had put in her/him.
Some of the things your child tells you may not make complete sense, or the details may come out of order. It is common for sexual assault survivors to have trouble understanding what happened during the assault, especially if (s)he had consumed alcohol or substances prior to its occurrence. You can help your child make sense of it by asking what (s)he remembers, and at what points (s)he thinks certain details may have happened. The mind has different ways of coping with trauma, including repressing or “blocking out” traumatic memories. If your child is seeing a therapist, the therapist would be the best person to help your child piece these memories together.
Your child may not fit your idea of what a victim looks or acts like. You may know your child to be a strong-willed, smart, and/or a physically strong person. On popular television shows, sexual assault victims are often slender heterosexual white women who seem incapable of defending themselves. In reality, sexual assault happens to women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, to men of all backgrounds, and to male and female cis- or trans-gender people who identify as LGBTQ. While some sexual assault victims seek help shortly after being assaulted, others may take a while to reach out for help, and many may try to keep up their usual routine for various reasons (wanting to feel like something is ‘normal’ in their lives, self-empowerment, emotional numbing/not being sure of what else to do). Try to suspend your expectations for how your child should be acting.
You may be upset if your child does not want to tell you details about the assault. This can be upsetting for multiple reasons—it may feel like your child does not trust you or is not telling the truth. You may also feel that your child owes you an explanation for why or how this could have happened to her/him especially after all of the warnings and information you gave him/her on avoiding dangerous or bad situations. You may want to be supportive to your child and feel that (s)he is shutting you out. There are many reasons why your child may not want to share details: discussing details may be painful or trigger memories of the assault, speaking about sexual topics in general with parents is uncomfortable, and your child may be trying to protect you from the trauma. Whatever the reason, trust that your child has his/her reasons, and let your child know what you are available in case (s)he wants to talk.
You may also know the person who assaulted your child. This may cause a lot of confusion about your role as a parent in this situation, or which story to believe. You are not alone—about 77% of survivors knew the perpetrator prior to the assault, and as such, many family members of survivors also know the perpetrator. It may be difficult to believe that a person you know and may care about as well could sexually assault or rape someone else. It is estimated that less than 5% of reported assaults are fictitious—you may feel that there was much “grey area” around the assault, and we encourage you to utilize other parts of this website to get more clarity on what constitutes sexual assault.
What you think your child should do may be different than what (s)he wants to in response to the assault. You may want your child to completely stop speaking to the perpetrator, report the assault to police, and/or seek action against the perpetrator via disciplinary avenues at the school. Your child may or may not agree to the modes of action you prescribe. After a traumatic event in which someone else violated your child’s right to make his/her own decisions about what to do with her/his body, your child needs you to affirm his/her intelligence and capability of making good decisions. Balancing your desire to protect your child with your desire to support him/her can be challenging. It is okay to tell your child that you want to help protect her/him from further harm, to give advice, and to point out the benefits of taking a particular course of action. Take care to not be too forceful with your opinion or give your child ultimatums about what to do.
You may blame yourself for failing to protect your child from the assault. Protecting your children is one of your responsibilities as a parent. It may feel as if you somehow did not do your job properly, or that you could have stopped this from happening if you had done something differently. You may feel that, if you had the financial means to get a good lawyer, you would be able to get better protections for your child after an assault. Guilt is a powerful emotion, and we often blame ourselves for the things we did not foresee. Your child does not live in a vacuum—whatever empowering messages you have given her/him, they exist alongside a culture that too often condones sexual violence (although this is always changing, and many parts of American society are slowly becoming less tolerant of violence against women). The person who assaulted your child is the person who is to blame for his/her actions. If the university fails in its responsibility to protect your child from further harm, then this is the fault of the university. You can advocate for your child, and help your child stand up for her/himself.
You may see your child’s wonderful personality disappear for a while. That person is not gone. Your child may need reminding that they are still a whole person, and that they are going through something difficult right now. Your child may feel weak or stupid, and may need you to remind her/him that they are strong and intelligent. If your child is doubting him/herself, use examples of times when they exemplified the qualities they feel they are lacking. Seeing your child depressed, numb, and/or engaging in destructive coping strategies may be difficult. Your child may struggle with the feeling that something important was stolen from him/her. And indeed it was, as the right to her/his own body was violated. Small ways of showing support may help more than you realize, and do your best to be a supportive parent.
You may have your own history with abuse or assault. Discussing details about your child’s assault can be triggering or bring you back to a bad place in your own life. It is okay to tell your child that it is difficult for you to talk about certain topics, but that you want to be there for him/her. You may feel that you are better equipped to help your child through the assault because of your own experience, or you may feel that it is too difficult for you. Telling your child that you have had similar experiences may help your child feel as if(s)he is not alone, but take care not to lean on your child for support processing your own experiences. If negative feelings around your own experiences with abuse or assault start resurfacing, seek out someone who can help you deal with them. This may be a romantic partner, friend, counselor, or other trusted adult.
Tips for Self-Care
Make a list of things you enjoy doing, that require little effort, and engage in those when you feel overwhelmed. Engaging in relaxing activities with a friend, romantic partner, or your child can make these activities more enjoyable as well. You can do these at home, or find places that offer these activities, such as a class or volunteer opportunity. Some examples are:
- Listening to music (at home, at a restaurant that also has live music, a concert, etc)
- Dancing (in your living room, as part of a class, or with loved ones)
- Doodling, drawing, or painting
- Watching or listening to something educational and unrelated to assault (i.e. many podcasts or Youtube videos cover a range of topics)
- Playing with a pet animal, a friend’s pet animal, or volunteering at a shelter for animals
- Doing a physical self-care activity, like doing your nails, getting a haircut, or getting a massage
- Exercise—walking around the neighborhood or a park, going for a run, hitting the gym
- Eating well. Note: eating well and emotional eating are two different things. Taking the time to prepare or choose a meal that is filling, healthy, and tasty can be relaxing and give you positive energy. Using food to escape from a problem is not healthy, and can contribute to disordered eating.