If your child has been raped or sexually assaulted it can be difficult to know how to react and how to support them. Even though it may feel daunting it is possible for you to be a good source of support for your child.
Rape and sexual assault will have an emotional impact on your child but it is also likely to impact upon you. As a parent you may experience a range of emotions such as shock, anger or horror at what they have experienced and a general sense of helplessness. You may also be angry if you feel that he or she has acted irresponsibly.
You might feel guilty about what happened and blame yourself for not being able to protect them. In the weeks after the assault you may feel frustrated that your child is not reacting in the way you would expect them to or would consider ‘normal’ following a sexual assault.
All of these emotions and thoughts can feel overwhelming and difficult to manage while still supporting your child.
Protecting your child
It is understandable that you may want to try and take more control over your child’s life following a sexual assault. You may stop them from seeing certain friends, not allow them to go out unless it is with you or take away their phone and internet access. You may be doing this because you want to protect them and also to set boundaries.
However, your son or daughter may perceive these actions as a form of punishment which can lead to feelings of self blame. These ‘rules’ could also isolate your child which could affect how they deal with the sexual assault. Allowing them to resume their normal routine could help them regain some control over their life. It may help to lessen feelings of loss and helplessness and give them some structure during what can often be a chaotic time.
It is important for your child to have the support of friends which will help to foster a sense of normality. It may be a good idea to sit down with them and discuss the concerns you have about their safety and perhaps work together to agree a plan that covers when they can go out, what time they have to be back and where they can and cannot go.
Responses to traumatic events vary from person to person. There is no right way to react to traumatic experiences. Your child may experience symptoms usually associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These symptoms include:
- sleeping problems
- frightening thoughts
- nightmares flashbacks
- outbursts of anger
- numbness anxiety alcohol/drug use
- difficulty concentrating feeling depressed
- refusal to discuss the experience lack of interest in life
These responses to trauma are normal and, in most cases, their severity decreases over time. However, if your child’s symptoms persist or you are worried about their ability to cope then you can discuss it with a professional e.g. your GP, a social worker or a school nurse. Remember, it will take time for your child to feel better but if they are struggling to cope, then it may be helpful for them to speak to a counsellor or a clinical psychologist.
While your child’s reactions can leave you feeling confused and concerned, it is important to remember that they are trying to make sense of events that have perhaps changed the way they see themselves and their world.
Allow your child to have space but also let them know that you are there to support them in whatever way they need you to.
If your child does not want to talk to you
When your child has been harmed, it is natural for you to want to know what they have been through and you may feel that they should be talking to you about it. However, it can be very difficult for survivors of rape and sexual assault to talk about their experience.
They may feel ashamed about what has happened and worried about your reaction to the things they tell you. They may also be worried that you will not be able to cope with what they have told you.
It is not unusual for young people to feel uncomfortable at the idea of talking to their parents about personal feelings and matters relating to their sexual health. If you are concerned about your child then you may want to think about other professionals that they could talk to. Although there are benefits to talking about traumatic experiences, your child should not be pressurised to do this.
It is a good idea to make them aware of all the services available that can support them.
It is not uncommon for young people to blame themselves for being raped or assaulted. However, it is important that this view is not reinforced by you. You may have concerns about the way your child has behaved and you might feel that their behaviour is one of the reasons why they were assaulted.
This is not a helpful or supportive position to take as the only person to blame is the assailant who chose to assault your child. However, a conversation concerning personal safety and personal boundaries can also be positive if it is approached in a way that encourages self-care in all areas of their life, not just as a means of preventing an assault.
You may also be experiencing feelings of self-blame and perhaps you are questioning what you could have done to prevent the assault. this is a natural response for you to have but, it is very important for you to acknowledge that the responsibility for the assault lies with the assailant.
At our centres, your child will have an opportunity to talk to a Crisis Support Worker. They are there to ensure that your child understands what kind of medical care they are receiving and can answer queries regarding sexual health.
Our teams can arrange referrals to ensure your child has ongoing emotional support. For example, with your child’s consent, they can refer them to a counselling or clinical psychology service.
Your child may want space and privacy and it is important to respect that. If the specialists supporting your child have concerns about their emotional and physical safety they will probably encourage them to discuss these with you.
Your child is likely to be seen alone, by the other specialists they are referred to. Please do not feel shut out by this. Talking about upsetting and frightening experiences can be much easier when there is no other person present, so it is likely that any of the specialists supporting your child will offer to see your child on a one-to-one basis.
Supporting your child through the criminal justice system
You may not agree with the decisions your child makes but it is important that you listen to their views. You may, for example, feel that they should pursue the allegation they have made but they might not wish to do so.
Conversely, you may feel that going to court will be too stressful and disruptive for them. While it is important for you to discuss the positives and negatives of pursuing the allegation with your child, it is ultimately your son or daughter who should make that decision with your support and guidance.
Getting support for yourself
It is possible that your child’s experience has brought back painful memories for you, perhaps related to your own experiences. Even if this is not the case, it is still important that you look after yourself, so if you are finding it difficult to cope with the assault then you may want to consider accessing counselling or psychological support.
You can access these services via your GP or ask a member of staff to advise you about the appropriate services available.
Having a strong family network can make a significant difference to how well a young survivor of sexual assault copes with their experience.
Your love, patience, concern and understanding will provide a base of support that your child can draw upon during this difficult time in their life.