How You Can Help - For Parents of Youth or Adults
Being a parent of a child in the process of healing from sexual assault can be one of the most heartbreaking and challenging experiences of your life. At the same time, it can be a very gratifying and profound experience to be able to be there for your child after such a traumatic event. Difficulties with trust, self-esteem and control, may be constant. Your child's healing process may dominate your time. You may feel confused about some of her behaviours and you may feel guilty or inadequate that you can't take away her pain. Your child may take her anger out on you, or withdraw for long periods of time. It may be hard for you to remember that these behaviours may have nothing to do with you personally. In reality she may be demonstrating what she can not express in words and doing what she needs to do to heal. Here are some suggestions that may be of help to you.
- Listen to your child's feelings. Avoid suggesting to her how she should feel, such as "you should feel angry." Encourage her to express the wide range of feelings she may be experiencing. At the same time, allow her to decide for herself when and how she will do this. Expect that she will have positive as well as negative feelings. It is not uncommon for the survivor to have feelings of warmth and love toward the perpetrator for the non-exploitative part of their relationship especially if the abuser was a family member who offered her nurturing as well.
- Let her know you believe her story. Probably one of your child's biggest fears is that she will not be believed - often even she may have difficulty believing what happened; she will only tell you what she thinks she can trust you with. Let her know that you believe what she tells you about her experience. By denying, distrusting, or minimizing her experience, you will only strengthen her fears and push her back into silence. She needs a calm, accepting, encouraging response. Don't press for details and don't focus on sexual details.
- Share your own feelings appropriately. It's okay to share your feelings of anger, sadness, and grief with her. In fact it may be helpful for her to hear that you feel outrage or pain about her experience. On the other hand, it's very important that your feelings are not so strong or out of control that she feels that she has to take care of you. She may feel guilty about upsetting you and may stop expressing her own feelings in order to protect you. Recognize your feelings as separate from hers. Be aware that angry and retaliatory behaviour can hurt her by making her feel anxious, out of control, and powerless. If this starts to happen, you may want to seek support for yourself elsewhere.
- Reinforce that the abuse is the offender's fault - not hers. Reassure your child that whatever she did or did not do was the right thing for her to do at the time to survive the sexual experience. Help her to reverse her feelings of guilt, self-blame, and denial by always placing the responsibility for the assault on the offender. Emphasize that, no matter what the circumstances, she was not to blame.
- Validate what she sees to be the effects of her experience. As a part of her healing, it is important that she begin to link her experience with any current problems and make sense of these connections in her own way. Even though the connections she makes may sometimes seen illogical to you, accept what she says as valid. No one else knows better than she does how the experience has affected her; no one else can do this 'sorting out' process for her.
- Let her make her own decisions. In order for the survivor to regain or feel in control of her life, it is important that she is not overprotected. This means encouraging her to trust her own instincts, ideas and opinions. Recognize that changes or decisions she makes may affect her relationships including her closest ones. Help her gather the information she needs to make decisions. Support her in any future disclosures or confrontations she may or may not choose to do.
- Ask permission before offering physical support. Unless you have a firmly established custom of expressing affection in your relationship already, do not rush in with physical contact to your child without asking her permission first. Some survivors may experience uninvited physical contact as an intrusion. It may remind them too much of the unwanted contact they experienced when they were being hurt. Other survivors may find touching, holding, and hugging to be comforting. The important thing is for your child to decide what she needs or wants.
- Beware that some of her feels about the offender may be inappropriately directed at a safe person. A survivor may transfer some of her feeling onto a parent with whom she feels safe. This may be confusing. When you believe this is happening one way of coping with this situation is to let your child know when she is making expectations and judgments about you that don't fit with how you see yourself. Gently point out when you feel your intentions are being misunderstood. If you start to feel defensive or aggressive resist acting this out with your child. Instead, admit your reactions openly and look for ways to bring them under control.
- Reinforce the fact that she has survived. Whatever she did or did not do was the “right thing” for her in order to survive the sexual violations. Remind her she has survived the worst and though healing can be difficult and painful, she will get through it just as she survived the assault.
- Recognize and respect your own limits. Try to keep tabs on your own emotional resources and don't give beyond what you are capable of giving. If you do, you may end up resenting or withdrawing from you child. Remember that no one person can give a survivor everything she needs, nor can anyone make up for what happened to her. Spend time taking care of yourself. Hearing about her experience may stir up unresolved issues and strong feelings about your own life. It may be important for you to have outside support for yourself such as professionals, friends or family. Make sure you get the child’s permission before you talk about her experience to others.
- Accept that you can't fix it. As much as you want to, you can not take away her pain or struggles. Some people think they have to do something in order to help a person get over pain, but often there is not a lot you can actually do.Some emotional pain is inevitable and it is her work to transform her feelings. Your place is not to make it better- your place is to be a loving supportive parent through hard times.
Crisis and Victim Service support is available for family, partners and friends. Please call the Information and Crisis Line (383-3232) in Victoria, or VictimLink at 1-800-563-0808.
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