Children are not responsible for abuse! And neither are parents. However, as a parent, you are responsible for helping your child develop the skills they need for speaking up and getting out of a bad situation if and when those bad situations happen. When your child is 16, what consent skills would you like them to have?
Good places to start are…
- Knowing when something feels off that they should leave.
- Knowing that once they leave they can call you or a safe adult to pick them up
- Knowing that they can tell a safe adult what happened with no shame – because they know that other people being inappropriate isn’t their fault.
- Knowing they can tell the difference between something that feels safe and unsafe.
- Knowing how to be respectful of other people’s boundaries.
As a parent, here are some tips you can use to build these skills with your teen:
- Educate your child about their sexual health and consent. Education reduces risk by over 90%.
- Do not ask your child to keep secrets for you.
- Open door policies at family events or gatherings
- Ask your teen’s consent for physical contact as a way to model respect for physical boundaries. This looks like “would you like a hug?” rather than “I’ll be so sad if I don’t get a hug!”
90% of abuse happens from a trusted adult in a teen’s life. 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are at risk. Ways you can discourage abuse from other adults is by being unpredictable to other adults in your teen’s life. This can look like…
- Showing up early to pick your child up from a sport or activity
- Arrive earlier than you said to relieve your babysitter
- Walk in suddenly without knocking when your child is alone with other adults.
Offenders do not like parents who are engaged, proactive, and unpredictable to them.
It lets them know they can’t trust you to stay away long enough for them to plan an offense. It tells them you have a watchful eye. This becomes more challenging as your teens desire more freedom. Being unpredictable to adults does not mean engaging in rescuing or helicopter parenting strategies, nor does it mean being unpredictable to your teen! This can be an odd balance to strike, and there is no way to do it perfectly.
Another high-risk population for abuse is children who were raised to be obedient (read about the drill sergeant parenting style here). Forcing your teen to be polite and blindly obedient increases your child’s risk for grooming. Children who are taught to do what they are told despite how they feel, and children who are told to never question orders are at high risk of not talking about abuse if it happens. Showing your child the difference between obedience and respect as well as obedience and mutual cooperation is an essential skill to helping your teen understand and set their own boundaries. Teens need to learn how to say “no” to other adults in their life if they are in an unsafe situation.
60% of teens will not talk about any abuse if it is happening. Usually, they won’t share because they…
- They don’t know they have options
- They don’t think anyone will believe them
- They feel scared and were threatened
- They were made to feel implicated
- They thought they would be blamed
- They feel shame for how their body responded
- They don’t know who to tell because a family member was the abuser.
- They are afraid of what will happen to the abuser because it is someone they know and trusted
- It happened more than once and they think people will be angry at them for not speaking up sooner
Touch starved teens
When a child receives little to no physical contact for a prolonged amount of time, the child will start to seek out physical contact from others in their life. This makes the child more susceptible to being groomed. Make sure you offer hugs and physical contact with your kids regularly! This can be challenging for nursing mothers – you may be overwhelmed by touch and pull away from your older kids. This can also be challenging for teens as they go through puberty. They may be less interested in tickles and wrestling however they still need pats on the back, hugs, and eye contact!
If you suspect that your teen has experienced abuse, get support.
- First, talk to your teen directly. Chose your timing and location wisely! Make sure you are in a calm, private place. Use a level tone. Avoid judgment and shame.
- Reassure your child. Let them know it will be ok.
It is imperative that when your child discloses to you, you continue to repeat the following messages through both your words and your actions:
- I love you.
- What happened is not your fault.
- I will do everything I can to keep you safe.
If your child is in danger, don’t hesitate to call 911. You can also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) to talk to someone from your local sexual assault service provider who is trained to help.
How am I supposed to react?
There is no “right” reaction to hearing that your child has been abused. You may experience a wide range of reactions and feelings that may impact different aspects of your life. Some common reactions from parents include:
- Anger. You may feel angry at the abuser for hurting your child, frustrated with your child for not telling you or even angry at your child for disclosing the abuse. It’s not easy news to hear or process, but it’s important to remember it is not your child’s fault. If you are feeling angry feel free to tell the child you need a moment to process and 2-3 minutes alone before returning to your child. Be sure you let them know that you’re aware it isn’t their fault, and you need a moment to process what happened.
- Sadness. You may feel sad for your child, for your family, or for yourself. When a child discloses sexual abuse, it will cause changes in your life. You may feel grief that your child had to “grow up to soon” or grief over the loss of a first positive sexual experience.
- Anxiety. You might be anxious about responding in the “right” way to your child or navigating the other relationships in your life, especially if you have a relationship with the abuser. You may be worried about what others will think or anxiety about potential confrontation.
- Fear. Depending on your family circumstances, you may be afraid that the abuser will find a way to harm your child again or be concerned about taking care of your family on your own.
- Shock. If you had no idea that the harm was occurring, you may go into shock. This is an intense state of surprise that can take some time to process. If you are in shock, make sure to get support for yourself and move your body.
It is important to keep in mind that there is no one “right” reaction and that all reactions and responses are normal. Having both you and your child talk to a professional about these thoughts and feelings can help sort through these issues. Professional support can also result in healthier long- and short-term results for both you and your child.
Your child is counting on you for support. In order to put your child’s safety first, it’s important to take care of yourself. That means finding a way to work through your feelings and reactions to the abuse that doesn’t interfere with your child’s welfare. It may not be easy, but with the right support it is possible.
What if the perpetrator is part of my family?
Finding out that your child was hurt by someone you know and trust can present some additional challenges as a parent. You may be faced with a range of emotions specific to this situation that others can’t relate to. Some experiences of parents may include:
- Anger towards the child for disrupting your family, especially if the perpetrator is your partner
- Anger towards the perpetrator for hurting your child and betraying your trust
- Guilt that you didn’t know the abuse was occurring or for still having feelings for the person who hurt your child
- If the person who harmed your child was another one of your children, you may feel conflicted about how to provide support to the child who was harmed while still trying to protect your other child.
- Losing faith in your judgment or abilities as a parent
- Practical fears about finances and day-to-day life that may change when the family member who caused harm is removed from the family circle
- Sense of loss for the family member who hurt your child as you begin to cut ties
What can I expect from my child?
The effects of sexual assault and abuse vary from person to person. The process of healing from sexual abuse can take a long time, and it’s understandable to feel frustrated as a parent. Survivors of child sexual abuse can react in a wide variety of ways. Some of these reactions could cause you discomfort or take you by surprise.
- Being angry at you for not protecting them
- Being angry at you for removing the perpetrator from the home
- Confiding in someone who isn’t you
- Not talking about it at all
- Talking about the abuse all the time
Reporting a crime like sexual abuse may not be easy, and it can be emotionally draining. Keep in mind that reporting abuse gives you the chance to protect a child and likely future children who can’t protect themselves. Depending on where you live and your role in the child’s life, you may be legally obligated to report suspicions of abuse. You can learn more about the laws in your state by visiting RAINN’s State Law Database.
Before you report
- Tell the child that you’re going to talk to someone who can help. Be clear that you are not asking their permission.
- The child may not want you to report and may be frightened, especially if the perpetrator has threatened them or their loved ones. Remember that by reporting, you are involving authorities who will be able to keep the child safe.
- Ensure that the child is in a safe place. If you have concerns over the child’s safety, be sure to discuss them explicitly with authorities when you make the report. If you fear that the perpetrator will cause further harm to the child upon learning about the investigation, clearly communicate this to authorities.
- If you are not concerned that the parents are causing harm, consult with them prior to making a report to the authorities.
- If you are a parent and are concerned that your partner or someone in your family may be hurting your child, this may be a very difficult time. It’s important to be there for your child, and it’s also important to take care of yourself.
- Prepare your thoughts. You will likely be asked to provide identifying information about the child, the nature of the abuse, and your relationship with the child. While anonymous tips are always an option, identified reporting increases the likelihood of prosecuting the perpetrator.
Where to report
- If you know or suspect that a child has been sexually assaulted or abused you can report these crimes to the proper authorities, such as Child Protective Services. Reporting agencies vary from state to state. To see where to report to in your state, visit RAINN’s State Law Database.
- Call or text the Childhelp National Abuse Hotline at 800.422.4453 to be connected with a trained volunteer. Childhelp Hotline crisis counselors can’t make the report for you, but they can walk you through the process and let you know what to expect.
After you report
- You may not hear or see signs of an investigation right away. Depending on an agency’s policies and your relationship with the child, you may be able to call back to follow up after a few days.
- If you are able to, continue to play the supportive role you always have in that child’s life. If making the report means that you can’t have this relationship anymore, know that by reporting you are helping that child stay safe.
- Take care of yourself. Reporting sexual abuse isn’t easy. It’s important to practice self-care during this time!