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Supporting a Child

Learning that your child has been a victim of sexual violence is shocking. It is natural to feel angry, and your parental instinct 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 over another — the greatest gift you can give to your child is 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 you can do:

  • Believe your child. It’s often 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 survivors 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.
  • Help your child distinguish between “if only” and “guilt.” It is common for survivors to blame themselves for what happened.  In some ways, this helps the survivor feel like they could have prevented the assault. Reassure them that it was not their fault and that the only person responsible is the perpetrator.
  • 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.Manage your own emotions. Don’t panic. If you become angry or overly upset, your child may find it harder to talk to you and may feel guilty for upsetting you. Share your feelings, but make sure your feelings don’t overwhelm theirs. Separate the anger you may feel at your child for having broken any rules or using poor judgment from the anger that you feel about what happened to your child. Remember that nothing they did justifies someone else hurting them.
  • 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.
  • Encourage your child to see themselves as a strong, courageous survivor who is reclaiming their life.
  • Encourage them to seek help from the various resources on and off campus.

(Adapted from: http://www.colgate.edu/sexual-violence-support-resources/supporting-a-survivor#top)

Please do not:

  • Criticize for being where they were, not resisting more, etc. The only person responsible for the sexual assault is the perpetrator. Everyone has the basic human right to be free from threat, harassment, or attack. Whatever your student did to survive the situation was the right thing to do.
  • Downplay, what happened by saying it wasn’t that bad or that they should forget about it. Let them say exactly how they feel.
  • Sympathize with the abuser. Your child needs your absolute support.
  • Blame your child, spouse/partner, or yourself. Avoid asking “why” questions as much as possible because these often imply blame.

(Adapted from: http://www.unh.edu/sharpp/supporting-student-survivors)