During this critical time, your focus needs to be on supporting your student, not taking on the role of detective, judge or jury. Realize that “legal justice” and “emotional healing” are two different things; for many survivors, legal justice is not the primary goal. It’s okay to have doubts about what to say or how to react when your student tells you they have been sexually assaulted. Recognize your own needs, and accept that there will very likely be changes in your relationship with your student as they heal.
How to Help Your Loved One
- Most importantly, believe what your student tells you (even if they sometimes doubt themselves, their memories are vague, or if what they tell you sounds extreme). Don’t become frustrated if the story changes. The details will likely come out in bits and pieces.
- Listen and help your student process through all of the confusing and painful feelings. Validate their anger, pain, and fear. These are natural responses that need to be felt, expressed, and heard. Validate the damage (all sexual abuse and rape is harmful, even if there are no physical scars or visible indicators of struggle). There are no positive or neutral experiences of sexual assault.
- It is okay to tell your student that this is a difficult topic for you to talk about. Let them know that you are open to talk about anything, even if it is uncomfortable.
- Control your own emotions. Don’t panic. If you show great emotion, your student may find it harder to talk with you and may even feel guilty for upsetting you. Share your feelings, but make sure your feelings don’t overwhelm theirs. As a loved one of a survivor, you may have reactions of anger, sadness, and shame. Find a supportive person or counselor with whom you can share your strong feelings with so that your conversations with your student can focus on their needs.
- Separate the anger you may feel at your student for having broken any rules or using poor judgment from the anger that you feel at the abuser. The offender is the only one responsible for the assault. No matter how badly you need to vocalize your anger, don’t vent it on your student or other family members.
- Recognize your student’s need for privacy. Their boundaries have been violated and reclaiming personal space is important. Respect the time and space it takes to heal after a sexual assault.
- Seek immediate professional help if your student displays any suicidal behaviors or if you are worried about their emotional or physical well-being.
- Take care of yourself. Educate yourself about sexual assault and the healing process. Realize when you’ve reached your own limitations, and encourage your student to talk to a professional.
Suggested Readings for Parents of Survivors of Sexual Assault.
If it Happens to Your Child, It Happens to You! A Parents Help Source for Sexual Assault. Christine A Golderg (1987)
If He Is Raped: A Guidebook for Parents, Mates & Friends. Alan McEvoy, Jeff Brookings, & Debbie Rollo (1999)
If She Is Raped, A Book for Husbands, Fathers and Male Friends. Alan McEvoy and Jeff Brookings (1984)
The Sexually Abused Child: A Parent's Guide to Coping and Understanding. Kathleen Flynn (1994)
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network: http://www.rainn.org
Resources for Allies and Partners: http://twhj.com/allies.shtml
Friends and Family Allies Support: http://incestabuse.about.com
Parents and Loved Ones of Sexual Abuse and Rape Victims: http://www.geocities.com/HotSprings/2656
Colorado State University Victims Assistance Team (24 hour confidential) 1-970-492-4242
National Sexual Assault Hotline (24-hour, confidential): 1-800-656-HOPE, www.rainn.org.