Advice if your teen has been sexually assaulted

mother having difficult conversation with teen 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: 

It can be very confronting and upsetting if your teenager tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted or abused. As a parent, you may not know what to say or do next. This is natural. 

In this article, we’ll run through six practical steps you can take when responding to your teen’s sexual assault disclosure to ensure they feel believed and well supported. 

If our teen is upset by the way another person has treated them, it's a normal response to blame someone (including ourselves), lash out, or try to fix things by, say, calling the police or their school principal. However, it's really important that we try to put our instincts to one side for a moment and work with the survivor.

Sexual assault will often make survivors feel like they’ve lost their power and autonomy. If your teen has been sexually assaulted, it’s important to empower them to make their own choices about what happens next. Careful listening at the time of disclosure can help survivors make sense of what happened to them, and help them start to gain control over their decisions. The aim is to help survivors understand that while something awful happened to them, it doesn't define them. 

1. Make sure that your teen is safe

The first thing you need to do is check to make sure that your teen isn’t in any kind of immediate danger, especially if they’ve come to you for help shortly after the assault. They may need you to call the police or an ambulance or to come and pick them up or help them get to a safe place.

In other cases, your teen may be telling you about a sexual assault that occurred weeks, months or even years ago.

Your teen may be feeling physically safe, but very psychologically unsafe. Even if they aren’t in any kind of immediate physical danger, you want to start by asking them questions like, ‘Are you okay? Are you safe?’ If you’re worried that they might be suicidal or at risk, there are services you can call to keep them safe.

It can be harder to ensure that you and your teen are safe if the perpetrator is a family member or a teacher. As parents, it’s our responsibility – and legal duty – to protect our kids against further harm. If you discover that someone in the family has sexually assaulted your teen, you can contact the national 24-hour sexual assault, family and domestic violence counselling line 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732), or the police, for guidance and protection. 

2. Listen to them

Once you’ve confirmed that your teen is safe, the next thing you should do is, well, nothing. Parents may feel the need to rush in and take immediate action. But you want to make sure that you first give your teen the space to tell you what happened. Active listening is really important, and you can frame your questions in ways that will encourage your teen to open up.

3. Reassure them that what happened isn’t their fault

It’s important to let your teen know that you don’t blame them for their sexual assault.

Tara Hunter, practice manager at North Sydney Sexual Assault Service, says it’s important to reassure your teen that it wasn’t their fault.

‘It’s about having a “no blame” culture and saying, “Regardless of whether you weren’t in the right place or whether you’ve 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,”’ Tara says.

As a parent, it’s also important to manage any guilt that you may be feeling. If your teen is telling you about a sexual assault that occurred weeks or months ago, you may feel like you should have known, or you might take the fact that your child didn’t tell you straight away as a reflection of poor parenting. It’s important to remember that sexual assault is no one’s fault except the perpetrator’s. It can be useful for you to access one of the professional services listed at the end of this article during this recovery period.

4. Work out what they want to do next

It’s really important to give your teen as much decision-making power as possible when it comes to what to do next.

Ellie Freedman, medical director of Northern Sydney Sexual Assault Service, explains why this is important: ‘The thing about sexual assault is that someone else has taken away their power and their choice, their body. It’s about asking that young person, “Please tell me what is worrying you, and we can work together to fix some of that, or address some of those concerns.”’

Many teens who experienced sexual assault are often concerned about practical things, like getting emergency contraception or being checked for sexually transmitted diseases.

But Ellie says it’s also okay for you as a parent to raise your concerns and to suggest what action you think you should both take next, especially if you’re worried about your teenager’s safety. But you'll also need to ask your teen what they would like to have happen, and try to compromise around what that might look like.

Remember that every person’s recovery from sexual assault will look different and there is no ‘right’ course of action for you both to take.

5. Seek professional help

One of the best things you can do as a parent is to encourage your teen to seek professional support from a sexual assault service or health-care provider who can guide both of you through the recovery process.

You could visit a hospital or your GP. There are free sexual assault services or clinics in most towns. You can find links to state-specific sexual assault services in this article.

There, trained health-care professionals or sexual assault counsellors will be able to answer all of your teen’s questions and address some of their concerns.

It’s also important to note that visiting a sexual assault service doesn’t commit you or your teen to any one course of action. It doesn’t mean your teen will have to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases. It doesn’t mean they will have to have a rape kit performed, meaning a forensic exam that gathers evidence of the assault from the survivor’s clothes or body. But your teen will probably be given the option of meeting with a counsellor, or a doctor or nurse, if they would like to.

Depending on your teen’s age, the service may be required by law to report the sexual assault to other people, such as the police or child protection services. But Tara and Ellie stress that this shouldn’t deter parents from visiting a sexual assault service. These steps are all in place to help support you and your teen to stay as safe as possible.

It can be really hard as a parent to know the right way to respond if your teen has been sexually assaulted. And it can be challenging to find a compromise between your ideas and concerns and your teenager’s. Another benefit of visiting a sexual assault service is that trained professionals can step in, relieve some of that pressure, and provide a safe space for you and your teen to decide what happens next.

You can also call the national 24-hour sexual assault, family and domestic violence counselling line 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) for help at any time.

6. Get your own support

Finding out that your child has been sexually assaulted or abused can be distressing. You may blame yourself and feel intense emotions such as anger or shame. Or you may not know how you feel. These are all natural responses.

It’s important to make sure that you are also looking after your own mental health during this period.

Here are some things you can do to look after yourself:

  • Chat to your GP, or to a mental health professional such as a counsellor or psychologist.
  • Contact the national 24-hour sexual assault, family and domestic violence counselling line 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). They recognise that supporting someone who has been through a traumatic experience can be very difficult, and are able to help you with this.
  • Call Lifeline (13 11 14) if you are feeling overwhelmed or are struggling to cope, or if you feel sad or worried.

Remember: there is no shame in reaching out for help or in admitting that you don’t know what to do in this kind of situation. Being a survivor's support person can be hard work. Support is available to help so that you and your teen can move through this difficult experience together.

You should prioritise practising self-care; this can help you to feel recharged, happier and healthier. Self-care can look different for everyone, but some suggestions include: 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.

While sexual assault or abuse is something that happens, it doesn't define us. Healing can be a complex journey, but help and support are always available.

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