What do you say to your kid when they come to you and tell you they are pretty sure they were sexually assaulted? A close friend recently asked me this. The friend has her own history of sexual violence as a child and adult. Like me, they have even written about it, more than once, and they write about parenting too. While most articles available offer tips on “how to protect your child,” few tell you — beyond the legal options and exhortation to use counseling services — how to deal with it after it happens despite having tried to protect your kids from it. Often, as in the case of my friend’s teen son, parts of the story are revealed well after the initial incident or discovery of the incident. You may have thought you already dealt with the issue, but over time it continues to come up, your child remembers new details, or stress/changes to routine bring up new nightmares or other symptoms of the trauma.
One of the things I loved about the writing in Dear Sister: Letters From Survivors of Sexual Violence is that it provides road maps for other survivors to work through their abuse. I was profoundly honored to be selected to include work in the book, and part of what I wrote is:
It wasn’t your fault. It was never your fault. You did nothing wrong. Hold this tight to your heart: it wasn’t your fault.
This remains one of the most important things anyone who has been assaulted needs to hear, many times, from many sources. Here are ten ways you can support your child immediately when they come to you and reveal they were sexually abused.
- Keep doing what you have been doing. You have been the one they could talk to when they could talk about it, who is there for them.
- Know that one of the worst and most traumatic parts is the simple truth: you cannot protect anyone or yourself from sexual assault. It happens, and the blame rests entirely with the abusive person. Society tells us that we should reduce our risks of being assaulted, that there are simple concrete ways to protect ourselves and our children, and that if something happened it was because of your failure to protect them. But it just isn’t that simple. You can do ALL the concrete things and sexual violence still happens. Knowing that does not make anyone feel better, of course, and your child may or may not be ready to hear that either because it can make the world terrifying. But for you, as the adult/parent/caregiver, you need to know it because it is the only way to set aside the guilt you feel.
- Tell them you believe them.
- Tell them they do not have to try to remember, and they do not have to try to remember it “right”. The mind is doing its job by not letting them remember, and no matter what anyone else says, it is ok that they don’t remember. It is also ok if they aren’t sure exactly what happened; it is ok if they remember bits and pieces, it is ok if their memory changes — but they are not required to try to figure it out.
- Tell them you believe them. Now, and later. Regardless of what/how much they remember, regardless of what/how their memory might change over time, you believe them, and they need to hear that.
- Tell them it is not their fault. Regardless of what/how much they remember, regardless of what/how their memory might change over time, it is not their fault. They will get messages from society that they did something or failed to do something that made them susceptible to assault, that they did something or failed to do something to make it happen and/or to not stop it from happening. You need to tell them with no ambiguity that it was not their fault.
- Tell them you are there for them, and they can talk or not talk to you about it according to their own needs.
- Tell them they are not alone, and that you do understand. If they are old enough now to hear that you really do understand and have been through something similar, consider sharing that (within reason, and without too many details — this is a good chance to demonstrate that a survivor’s memory of events is tricky). Also, share with them something about how you have coped.
- Recognize, and educate yourself about coping mechanisms abuse survivors have that your child might also exhibit. For example, my friend’s child has gained quite a bit of weight over the last couple years, and she has been consciously providing a body positive home environment to her children. Gaining weight is a common coping mechanism after sexual assault, in an effort to make oneself “unattractive” or as an attempt simply to make themselves bigger and more intimidating. That is ok, and there is nothing wrong with their body. Your child might be self-introspective enough to recognize their own coping mechanisms and need support to deal with (or undo damage caused by) them. Support their ideas if they want to learn new coping skills, like self-defense. Also, let your child know sexual violence is not about attractive versus not attractive — it is about power and something broken in the other person, and gaining weight is also not inherently unattractive.
- Tell them you love them.