Learning that your loved one has been assaulted or abused can be one of the most painful things you will ever endure. Be prepared to be more closely involved with your family member’s recovery than others, as the survivor may need help financially for therapy, transportation, or someone to talk to regularly. However, also remember that for some survivors, it’s easier to talk to friends than family about sexual violence. Don’t take this as a judgment on your relationship. Respond to the survivor’s needs, but don’t impose your assistance. Below are some tips on how to engage respectfully and supportively if your loved one tells you they’ve been assaulted.
Listen to and believe your loved one. Whether it happened an hour ago or 10 years ago, understand the courage it took to come forward to speak with you about their experiences. It can be extremely difficult to talk with family members about experiences of violence, so do not be offended if you were not the first person your loved one told or if their experience happened a long time ago.
Do not interrupt them, try to solve the problem for them, or tell them how to feel. There is no “correct” way to deal with sexual violence or assault. Everyone reacts differently.
Try: Thank you for telling me about this… or What can I do to help you?, and avoid pressing for answers to questions they don’t seem comfortable with answering. Be fully present, and listen to what they are saying without judgment and with empathy. Be patient and understanding. It may be helpful to share your feelings about what your loved one has disclosed but try not to center your feelings in the discussion. Remember: this is about them, their hurt, and their needs moving forward.
Do not minimize the experience or make excuses for the perpetrator. Sexual violence and assault is completely unacceptable. End of story. Avoid language suggesting that “boys will just be boys,” or “but they seemed like such a nice girl/boy,” or that this is a normal rite of passage. No matter what the victim was drinking, wearing, or doing, t is the perpetator’s — not the victim’s — fault.
It can be especially hard for survivors to tell parents about violence because it often involves an acknowledgement of sexual relationships with others (since violence often happens between people in an existing sexual relationship). Do not be judgmental of the victim.Do not victim-blame or tie the violence to other consensual sexual, clothing, friend, or drinking choices. For some families, discussing sex and sexuality at all is extremely difficult. Some families may have never discussed sex before. Be supportive and treat your loved one with respect and maturity.
If you find out from someone else that your loved one has been sexually assaulted, tread carefully. If you broach the subject with your loved one, make sure you allow them to define the experience in their own terms. Be careful about using words like “rape” or “sexual assault” in the conversation; try to use the same words they apply to their experience.
Recognize your loved one’s autonomy, even when the law doesn’t. Don’t force your loved one to participate in intrusive investigations without first discussing all options and assessing your loved one’s needs. Consult with your loved one before taking action on your own. If your loved one would like to seek outside help, try to accommodate as best you can. Many local rape crisis centers offer support services including counseling at little to no cost.
Try: What would make you feel safe at school? or Can I drive you to a counseling appointment?
Don’t automatically assume that you know what is best. Trust your loved one and treat their safety concerns are legitimate. Survivors know the situation, their perpetrator, and their feelings best. Especially for minors in abusive relationships, the most dangerous time is often when leaving the relationship. Encourage them to trust their instincts.
Try: What are your safety concerns?
Work together to develop a safety plan to make your loved one feel safe at home, school, or in the community. Help your loved one to identify the resources they can access when feeling unsafe or triggered.
Offer to help your loved one advocate with their school. Minors sometimes face discrimination for ‘just being kids’. Sometimes having a supportive parent in the room makes the student’s words more persuasive. Learn about your loved one’s Title IX rights and help them understand their rights too.
Seek support. Sometimes local rape crisis centers offer support groups for parents of sexual violence survivors. It can be helpful to know that you are not alone.
Educate yourself about the options. Your loved one may come to you to better understand theirlegal options. Understand and explain neutrally all options available to your loved one and support them in making their own decisions.
Remember that some survivors don’t choose to confide in their families — and for a variety of reasons. In the words of one activist:
I didn’t tell my parents about being raped because even though I was working hard in therapy to deal with my “incident,” it took me a long time to put the word ‘rape’ to it. So when I called my mom to tell her about an unpleasant ‘nonconsensual’ sexual experience I’d had two years prior, she didn’t know what I meant. Because I shut her out, she had a hard time giving me the proper support. And the reason I shut her out in the first place is that I was terrified of hurting her, forcing her to imagine what it was like for me, and since it happened the first week of school, I knew if my parents knew what happened they would pull me out. I wanted to stay in school and put what had happened out of my mind. I think I am not alone in wanting to protect my parents from the truth.
This page is a combination of “Supporting High School Survivors: Parents Guardians” by Nina Gurak and Iris Z. and “Support a Survivor” by Katarina Hyatt.