SUPPORTING A CHILD WHO HAS BEEN SEXUALLY ASSAULTED
As the parent of a child who has been sexually assaulted, you play a critical role in the healing process. Some parents may feel responsible in some way for the abuse; you may feel that somehow you should have known about the abuse or should have been able to stop the abuse. Please know that it is not your fault. Educating yourself and examining your own emotions (anger, guilt, powerlessness, and fear) are steps you can take to more effectively support your child and yourself. The impact of trauma on children is determined, in large part, by how adults in the child's world respond to the child's disclosure of assault. The adults' response can have as much or more impact on the child as the traumatic event itself.
DEFINING SEXUAL ASSAULT
NO ONE WAY OF HEALING
- Sexual assault is any unwanted attention or sexual contact committed by force, manipulation, bribes, threats, pressure, tricks, or violence.
- Child sexual abuse includes sexual contact or attempted contact, ranging from fondling to intercourse.
- Perpetrators can be strangers, acquaintances, friends, or family members. Child abuse is usually committed by someone the child trusted.
- Child sexual abuse is never the victim's fault. It is possible for a child to care for or want to spend time with the person who is abusing him/her. BUT, this does not mean that he/she is responsible for the abuse or wanted it to happen.
- Sexual assault is a crime motivated by violence, anger, and a need for power and control.
While having a checklist of what to expect during the healing process would be helpful, it is not possible. Many emotions surface as one heals from sexual assault, and each individual may experience different emotions at different times. As you support your child, patience is critical; healing time varies from many months to many years. Do not expect an "end," but instead recognize that the victim is engaged in a process, and that the mark of successful healing is not "getting over the assault," but rather, getting on despite the assault. Some of the signs a parent may notice in a child survivor could include:
- increased frustration
- social withdrawal
- increased neediness/attachments
- sleep disturbances
- eating disturbances
- many new fears
- suddenly turning against one parent
- a return to more baby-ish, younger behavior (developmental delay)
- a new interest in their own genitals or those of other people or of animals
Your child may demonstrate more then one of these behaviors or emotions; there is no set or standard order, and behaviors and emotions may also be experienced that weren't identified above.
Another issue that may surface for your child is confusion around how the assault physically felt. Children may feel guilty because parts of the touching actually felt good. This is normal. Reassure your child that while the touching was inappropriate, his/her body's physical response was normal and that "feeling good" at the time of the abuse does not, in any way, make him/her responsible for the abuse.
When supporting a child who has been sexually assaulted, it is essential that the child feel believed. Here are some steps that you can take:
- Immediately reassure the child that you believe everything that she/he tells you.
- Reassure her/him that you still love her/him and that it is not her/his fault, regardless of the circumstances.
- Praise the child for telling and let them know that you are glad that they did.
- Even if there is no apparent physical injury, see that your child gets the medical attention she/he deserves after the assault. In order to provide additional support to you and your child as you go through a medical examination, consider contacting a Rape Crisis Center counselor or advocate.
- Help the child to feel safe - explain that you will do everything that you can to protect her/him from further abuse.
- Know local resources, and choose help carefully. (You may want to consult a Rape Crisis Center legal advocate to support you and your child and to help coordinate Social Service and police reports that must be completed.)
- Allow the child to talk at her/his own pace. A child's healing requires that parents be available to hear and accept the child's fears and repetitious relating of the events.
- Allow your child to have as much control as possible over the decisions which are made about her/him.
Although it is important to be honest about your feelings, do not look to your child to alleviate your pain (anger and frustration) or to return to the way she/he was before the assault. This is not possible and both you and your child will grieve this loss.
In addition to wanting your life and your child's life to return to normal as soon as possible, you may also want to retaliate against the child's abuser. You may feel that by expressing your wishes your child will feel believed and supported, and this is sometimes the case. However, by constantly expressing these feelings, you may cause your child to feel additional concern and guilt for your frustration and anger.
Simply by calling the Rape Crisis Center and reading this handout, you have already shown that you are interested in expanding your compassion and understanding, which will, in turn be communicated to your child. And please remember that rape crisis lines are not solely for victims. As a loved one, you may use the Rape Crisis Line and Rape Crisis Center to help you explore your thoughts and emotions regarding your child's sexual assault. Your strength and some of these guidelines will serve as important factors in providing support to your child.
Adapted from: He Told Me Not To Tell - King County Rape Relief
I Never Thought It Could Happen To Us - The Sexual Assault Support Service
No More Secrets: Protecting Your Child From Sexual Assault - Caren Adams & Jennifer Fay