Some survivors want to tell their parents what they experienced (or are experienced), and draw on them as a source of support, whether emotional, financial, or otherwise. Some don’t. Either is fine. You know best what kind of support you need and from whom you feel safe asking for it. Know though that, if you’re under 18 and want to pursue legal action, you may need to involve a parent/guardian.
Some student survivors report concerns such as fear of parental retaliation against the perpetrator, feeling a loss of control over the situation, or not being believed when they disclose. These are all understandable fears, and it may be helpful to talk to a friend, counselor, or trusted adult to practice the conversation and get advice on how to talk to your parents. Below are a few additional tips on how to start the conversation.
Pick a good time.
If it’s not an emergency, it can be helpful to pick a time to sit down with a parent/guardian so that they are not distracted and have enough time to listen and respond.
Start by setting the tone for the conversation.
Try saying: “I have something important I have to tell you…” or “I really want to talk to you about something important…”
Parent/guardian reactions will vary.
Some reactions may include:
- They may feel angry. This could be directed at you for not telling them sooner, or directed at the abuser. It is important to reassure them that you are telling them now and that this requires a great deal of trust. Try: “At the time, I thought I could handle the situation, but now I am trusting you with this and asking for your help…” If you are concerned about angry or violent reactions or retaliation against the perpetrator try re-stating your feelings and list your concerns. Try: “I do not want you to contact _______ because of ______. I appreciate your concern and support, but I don’t want anyone to get hurt. The best way you can support me now is by listening to what I want and what I need from you.”
- They may feel guilty. Parents/guardians often feel responsible for protecting their kids. When you disclose, they may feel like they have failed in their role to protect you. Know that it is not your responsibility to deal with their guilt. (It is also completely understandable for you to feel upset or angry with them for failing to protect you.)
- They may be in denial. It can be difficult for parents/guardians to process that you have suffered violence. For a number of reasons, they may be unwilling to admit or believe that this has happened. This can be particularly difficult to deal with. You deserve to be believed and supported. Know that their denial does not change what happened. If you need their support (financial, legal, etc.) to get help for yourself, don’t give up. Keep explaining why you need their help and support. Try: “I know we have differing opinions but I need you to drive me to a rape crisis center so that I can see a therapist.”
- They may act controlling. Parents/guardians may feel the need to more closely monitor your behavior after an assault or instance of violence. They may forbid you from going to parties, seeing an abusive partner, or may pressure you into taking action you are not comfortable with. Sometimes this can feel like they are blaming you for what happened. Know that nothing you did caused an assault. Try to help your parent/guardian see the situation as you are experiencing it. Try: “I know you are worried about me, but I would really like to go_____. I know you mean well but when you pressure me to _____ I feel ______.”
- They may be supportive. Some parents/guardians will be amazing at supporting you and giving you the space to talk about your experiences. And others may be better at this at certain times, or may take a while to reach a place of support. Remember that if/when they get it wrong, it’s their fault, not yours, and it doesn’t mean they don’t love you.
Know that whatever the reaction is, you did nothing wrong. People process their loved ones’ trauma in different ways — many of them not helpful or productive. Find people — friends, teachers, counselors, other family members — who support you in ways that make you feel safe, comfortable, and respected.
Avoid feeling pressure about what to do next.
Some parents/guardians will feel strongly about a certain course of action or may ask lots of intrusive questions. Try not to feel pressured to do something you’re uncomfortable with. Trust that you know what is best. If a parent/guardian chooses a course of action that you are uncomfortable with, you can always refuse to participate in legal or medical proceedings (though legal proceedings can sometimes still be continued without your participation).
Tell them what you want from them.
Parent/guardians often want to help, but don’t know how. If you have an idea about how they can be supportive, tell them. Try: “I need a ride to the doctor’s office… or I would like you to file a protection order on my behalf…” or “When you say ___, I feel like I’m being blamed for staying in my relationship…”
Some parents/guardians are incredibly supportive and some are not. Remember that, regardless of how they handle the situation, violence is never your fault.
Teachers, or counselors may be good people to talk to about violence or harassment you’ve experienced or are experiencing. Know, though, that if you are under age 18, some of these people may be required by mandatory reporting laws to disclose the abuse to a government agency, such as law enforcement, child protective services, or a child abuse reporting hotline.
Laws requiring mandatory reporting vary by state (you can learn more about the laws in your state here), but in general, individuals designated as mandatory reporters are:
- teachers, principals, and other school staff;
- physicians, nurses, and other healthcare professionals;
- counselors, therapists, and other mental health professionals;
- law enforcement officers;
- social workers; and
- child care providers.
Typically, mandatory reporters must make a report when they, in their official capacity, suspect or have reason to believe that a child has been abused or neglected. In making their report, they are typically asked to provide the name, address, gender, and age of the victim; the name and address of the victim’s parents/guardians; the nature of the abuse; and the name of the perpetrator (for example, see these mandatory reporting requirements in Connecticut). Child protective services or law enforcement may then open an investigation. Mandatory reporters are typically not required by law to alert your parents/guardians to the abuse, although they are generally not prohibited from doing so.
While the goal of mandatory reporting is to keep you safe, the decision to tell someone what happened (or what’s happening) can be difficult; you should always do what feels safest for you. If you would like to seek help without triggering a report, try speaking in hypotheticals to counselors, doctors, or other adults with whom you feel comfortable. For example, “What if I had a friend whose classmate touched her in a way she wasn’t okay with? What should my friend do next?” You can also call a hotline and refuse to tell them your age.
If you are 18 or older and no longer have a legal guardian, child abuse mandatory reporting laws do not apply to you. However, some states (such as Virginia) have adopted mandatory police referral laws that require colleges and universities to turn over rape cases to law enforcement, regardless of the victim’s age. (Learn how to organize against mandatory referral bills here).
Regardless of your age, if you disclose that you were assaulted to a school employee (like a teacher, custodial staff member, or cafeteria worker), this employee will most likely have to report the information to another school official called the Title IX coordinator. The Title IX coordinator’s job is to ensure that you’re safe and able to learn, and may — in limited circumstances, depending on your age, the severity of the violence, and the likelihood that your perpetrator will hurt other people — need to open an investigation, without your consent. See pp. 18-22 of the OCR’s FAQ guide for more information.
- If you choose to disclose to a school employee (with the exception of therapists and pastoral counselors), that person will have to report to the Title IX coordinator “all relevant details about the alleged sexual violence that [you have] shared and that the school will need to determine what occurred and to resolve the situation. This includes the names of the alleged perpetrator (if known), the student who experienced the alleged sexual violence, other students involved in the alleged sexual violence, as well as relevant facts, including the date, time, and location.” See pp. 15-16 of the OCR’s FAQ guide for more information.
- If you choose to disclose to a therapist or pastoral counselor, these employees are not required by Title IX to report any information to a Title IX coordinator or other school employee (although, if you are under 18, they may be required to report to law enforcement). See pp. 22-24 of the OCR’s FAQ guide for more information.
Sometimes it can be hard to talk to friends about your experiences with violence. Know that if you disclose to them, you do not have to follow any course of action you are uncomfortable with or answer invasive questions. It can be helpful to start off the conversation with a close friend who you trust when both of you have time for a long and serious conversation. If you have a specific idea of how you would like them to help you, ask them directly. Try: Could you walk me to class on Tuesday? or Could we just talk about what’s been going on later today?
Sometimes it can be helpful to just have someone to text if you need something. Reactions from friends can vary greatly. Many survivors report that the first friend they told minimized or disbelieved the violence and that, as a result, they never told anyone again. If the first person you tell doesn’t take your disclosure seriously, that’s on them — not you. Find a respected adult or counselor and try again. Know that you deserve love and support.