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Are you a parent?

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.

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 your child’s behaviours and you may feel guilty or inadequate that you can’t take away their pain. Your child may take their 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 they may be demonstrating what they can not express in words and doing what they need to do to heal. Here are some suggestions that may be of help to you.

  1. Listen to your child’s feelings. Avoid suggesting how they should feel, such as “you should feel angry.” Encourage your child to express the wide range of feelings they may be experiencing. At the same time, allow them to decide for themself when and how they will do this. Expect that they will have positive as well as negative feelings. It is not uncommon for a 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 was also nurturing.
  2. Let your child know you believe their story. Probably one of your child’s biggest fears is that they will not be believed – often they may even have difficulty believing what happened; they will only tell you what they think they can trust you with. Let them know that you believe what they tell you about their experience. By denying, distrusting, or minimizing their experience, you will only strengthen their fears and push them back into silence. They need a calm, accepting, encouraging response. Don’t press for details and don’t focus on sexual details.
  3. Share your own feelings appropriately. It’s okay to share your feelings of anger, sadness, and grief. In fact it may be helpful for a survivor to hear that you feel outrage or pain about their experience. On the other hand, it is very important that your feelings are not so strong or out of control that your child feels that they have to take care of you. They may feel guilty about upsetting you and may stop expressing their own feelings in order to protect you. Recognize your feelings as separate  your child’s. Be aware that angry and retaliatory behaviour can be hurtful by making someone feel anxious, out of control, and powerless. If this starts to happen, you may want to seek support for yourself elsewhere.
  4. Reinforce that the abuse is the offender’s fault – not the survivor’s. Reassure your child that whatever they did or did not do was the right thing to do at the time to survive the experience. Help to reverse 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, they were not to blame.
  5. Validate what they see to be the effects of their experience. As a part of healing, it is important that survivors begin to link their experience with any current problems and make sense of these connections in their own way. Even though the connections they make may sometimes seem illogical to you, accept what they say as valid. No one else knows better than a survivor how an experience has affected them; no one else can do this ‘sorting out’ process for them.
  6. Let them make their own decisions. In order for the survivor to regain or feel in control of their life, it is important that they are not overprotected. This means encouraging them to trust their own instincts, ideas and opinions. Recognize that changes or decisions they make may affect their relationships including their closest ones. Help them gather the information they need to make decisions. Support them in any future disclosures or confrontations they may or may not choose to do.
  7. 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 their 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 they need or want.
  8. Beware that some of their feelings about the offender may be inappropriately directed at a safe person. A survivor may transfer some of their feelings on to a parent with whom they feel 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 they are 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.
  9. Reinforce the fact that they have survived. Whatever they did or did not do was the “right thing” for them to do in order to survive.
  10. 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 your child. Remember that no one person can give a survivor everything they need, nor can anyone make up for what happened to them. Spend time taking care of yourself. Hearing about their 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 their experience to others.
  11. Accept that you can’t fix it. As much as you want to, you can not take away their 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 a survivor’s work to transform their 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.