If you worry your teen has been sexually assaulted

father having conversation with daughter at home

Content warning

This article talks about sexual assault which may be distressing to some people. If you or your family is in distress, access urgent help here or call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).

This article will explain:

If you suspect that your teen may have been sexually assaulted or abused, you might feel worried or scared about what to do next. You might have intense feelings of guilt or anger, or a wish to take action against the suspected perpetrator. These are all natural responses to what you’re going through.

You might have noticed drastic changes in your teen’s behaviour. Or maybe they casually mentioned something that happened to them, or occurred in their relationship, that has given you cause for concern. Thankfully, there are ways you can open up a dialogue with your teen and help them to feel safe and supported in talking about this difficult topic, whatever situation they’re in.

If your teen mentions something that happened to them that is clearly sexual assault, or reveals that they have been sexually assaulted or abused, this article will help you decide how best to respond and what steps you can take next.

What is sexual assault?

‘Sexual assault’ is any kind of sexual activity a person is forced, coerced or tricked into engaging in when they don’t want to. It refers to a wide range of unwanted sexual behaviours, including:

  • forced, unwanted sex, sexual acts or touching
  • child sexual abuse: using power over an adolescent to involve them in sexual activity
  • indecent assault: touching, or threatening to touch, someone else’s body sexually without their consent.

Sexual assault can be carried out by a romantic partner, by someone a person knows or by a total stranger.

The most important thing to remember is that sexual assault is not the fault of the person who has been assaulted. It’s something that happened to them.

It doesn’t matter how they are dressed, whether they are drinking, or if they are flirting with the other person. It’s never okay for someone to do something to another person without their active and enthusiastic consent.

Click here for more information about what sexual assault is.

What warning signs should I look for?

The truth is: there is no one warning sign or change in behaviour that indicates your teen has experienced sexual assault or abuse.

As Ellie Freedman, medical director of Northern Sydney Sexual Assault Service, explains, a young person’s teenage years can be a very intense period of change. Their behaviour might change in ways that cause concern as a result of a number of things going on in their lives, such as school stress, friendship or relationship troubles, bullying, peer pressure, family conflict, or struggles around body image.

There are patterns of behaviour that could indicate your teen is struggling with something, including sexual assault. You have reason to be concerned if your teen is:

  • refusing or not wanting to do their normal activities
  • sleeping all day
  • refusing or not wanting to go to school, or you’re seeing a drop in their school grades
  • not wanting to go to certain places they used to enjoy
  • going out more than usual
  • exhibiting serious changes in their personality or behaviour
  • using drugs or alcohol
  • self-harming.

But it’s really important to note that there are lots of things that could be causing these behaviours in your teen that have nothing to do with sexual assault or abuse. It’s not always easy to tell the difference between regular teenager behaviour and when there might be something else going on.

So, the best thing you can do as a parent, Ellie says, is open up a dialogue with your teen where they feel safe to talk to you about what they might be going through.

How can I talk to my teen about what they are going through?

Pick the right moment to talk

If you can, pick a time to talk when you don’t have other distractions or commitments you have to rush off to. Sit down in a quiet, comfy space. Remove distractions and put your phone on silent. Give your teen your full attention when you chat.

All of these things signal that you are present, you want to listen, and you are there for your teen.

Start an open-ended conversation

Instead of asking your teen if they’ve been sexually assaulted, Northern Sydney Sexual Assault Service’s practice manager, Tara Hunter, recommends starting an open-ended discussion with them about what’s happening in their lives.

‘You could start by saying something like, “Hey, I noticed that things have changed for you at the moment. It seems like school’s a bit harder for you. Has something that’s happened?”’ Tara says.

Ask them about their social life

Another good way to initiate a conversation around topics like sex or relationships is to ask your teen what other people at school are doing. Ellie explains: ‘Sometimes starting the conversation with “What’s going on at school?” is an easier and more comfortable space for your child to talk about these issues. You can then follow up by asking how they feel about their friends engaging in these behaviours.’

Avoid using the phrase ‘sexual assault’ to begin with

Ellie explains: ‘There’s a huge amount of confusion often felt by a victim of sexual assault at any age.’ Many young people may not know to label what they have experienced as sexual assault or abuse.

‘To give an example,’ Ellie says, ‘a boy who is pressuring or coercing a girl into having sex with him could be calling it something else in the context of a relationship or normalising it. And the girl in that case could feel really quite confused and complicit in what’s going on. So, I think sometimes even if you call it “sexual assault”, as a parent or a carer, that might not be what the child is calling it in their mind.’

Instead, ask your teen open-ended questions about whether anything has happened in terms of sex or their relationships that has made them feel uncomfortable.

You could approach the topic by asking questions, such as:

  • ‘Is there anything that’s happening in your relationship that you would like to talk about?’
  • ‘Has anything happened with [insert partner’s name] that has made you feel uncomfortable?’
  • ‘Sometimes people might pressure us to have sex, or kiss or touch them in a way we don’t really want to. Have you felt pressured to do anything like this with someone?’

Often, talking through what’s happened in a safe space can help your teen reflect on the fact that something didn’t feel okay and give them the chance to make sense of their feelings.

Reassure them that they can talk to you or other trusted adults

Adolescence is a good time to have ongoing conversations with your teen about relationships and sex. For more advice, check out our articles on how to talk to your teens about consent and respectful relationships.

But it’s also good to reassure your teen that they can always come and talk to you if anything happens to them sexually that makes them feel uncomfortable. Tara Hunter advises telling your teen that you’ll never blame them for being sexually assaulted.

‘It’s about having that “no blame” culture and saying “Regardless of whether you weren’t in the right place, or whether you have been using alcohol, you didn’t ask for someone to hurt you, you didn’t go out with the intention that someone would sexually assault you. You didn’t choose that.”’

Tara also recommends chatting to your teen about which other trusted adults they can talk to about a problem if they feel uncomfortable coming to you. ‘Ask them: “If something happens, and you can’t talk to me, who are two people that you can speak to?”’ she says.

Consider services to support their mental health

If you think your teen is going through a tough time, or you notice they’re exhibiting some of the worrying behaviours mentioned above, you may also want to look into different services to support their mental health.

If you are worried that your teen is experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts, or engaging in self harm, you can contact Lifeline (13 11 14) or 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) for help.

What to do if your teen thinks they have been sexually assaulted?

As we mentioned at the start, if your teen talks about something that happened to them that is clearly sexual assault, or reveals that they have been sexually assaulted or abused, you can read this article about how you can best respond and what steps you can take next.

Make sure that you’re supported, too

It can be really worrying to see your teen going through a tough time. It’s very important that you seek your own support. You might chat to your GP, a professional counsellor or a psychologist, or even a trusted family member or friend. You can also call Lifeline on 13 11 14 if you’re feeling overwhelmed or are struggling to cope, or you feel sad or worried.

You should try to prioritise self-care; this can help you to feel recharged, happier and healthier. Self-care looks different for everyone, but some suggestions include: prioritising getting enough sleep and eating well; planning activities that you look forward to; and practising saying ‘no’ and setting personal boundaries. Click here for more ideas on how to practise self-care as a parent. 

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