A Guide to Support Sexual Assault/Abuse Survivors
Guide to child reactions and parent responses to child sexual abuse/assault
If you are the parent or guardian of a child who is a victim of sexual abuse/assault, you may find the following suggested responses to common reactions helpful.
|Child Reaction to sexual abuse/assault
A child may not want to separate from you and may need constant reassurance.
|Reassure the child that he or she is safe now.
A child may be embarrassed to talk about what happened. Older children and boys often feel a sense of guilt.
|Tell the child that he or she is not at fault and is not responsible for what happened.
|Anxiety/Loss of Control
A child may feel out of control or vulnerable. He or she may develop a low self-image.
|Create situations in which the child feels in control and empowered. For example, encourage your child to make decisions about family activities or help with family meals or other activities he or she can complete successfully.
A child may refuse to talk, may be emotionally incapable of remembering or talking about the abuse, may develop immature behaviors (i.e. bedwetting, thumb sucking, loss of toilet training).
|Help the child feel secure and in control. Explain the purpose of the legal investigation, the medical exam and treatment.
A child may not want to sleep alone, experience nightmares, disrupted eating habits (hoarding food or reluctant to eat), reluctance to go to school, stomach ache or headache.
|Allow the child to talk about his or her fears. Show understanding about his or her physical complaints and reassure the child that he or she is safe.
Visit our SAFE Place Treatment and Support Program page for information about what to do and not do if your child discloses to you that she/ he has experienced sexual abuse, and for a summary of common symptoms/problems after experiencing a traumatic event.
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Guide to family, friends, and partners of older adolescent sexual assault/abuse survivors
Sexual assault and sexual abuse can be emotionally traumatic to survivors of either sex. While sexual assault occurs in both males and females, the following information primarily addresses female survivors and their loved ones.
Pertinent statistics regarding sexual assault/abuse
- As many as 1 in 4 college women become survivors of attempted or completed rape during their college years.
- In 60 to 80 percent of rapes, the assailant and the survivor know each other and, of these, over half of the rapes happen on a date.
- It is estimated that only 10 percent of rapes are reported to the police.
- Seventy-five (75) percent of the male perpetrators and 55 percent of the female victims report that alcohol was involved at the time of the incident.
- Only 27 percent of women who were sexually assaulted, according to the legal definition of rape, perceive themselves as being rape survivors.
Common responses to recent sexual assault/abuse
Survivors differ in their responses to assault/abuse. The long-term effects may be influenced by the severity of the assault, the survivor’s existing coping skills and the support the person has afterwards. Nevertheless, the following responses are experienced by many survivors:
- Low or diminished self-esteem after an assault or abuse. Survivors frequently feel shamed, guilty, angry and powerless
- Negative body image, which may lead to self-abuse (e.g., alcohol abuse, overeating, self-mutilation, etc.)
- Difficulty trusting or being intimate with others
- No desire for sexual intimacy
- Engaging in risky sexual behaviors
- Flashbacks of the incident
- Fear of being alone and fear of a future attack
- Nightmares or other sleep disturbances
- Lack of concentration and focus, which can affect academic and/or job performance
Survivors often go through three general phases. (The phases do not always occur in the order listed below.)
- Phase one: This phase may last a few days to several weeks. The survivor may experience shock and severe distress, confusion, disorientation, anger and rage.
- Phase two: The survivor often wishes to forget the incident and return to "normal.” It is common to want to suppress feelings in order to forget about the incident and regain control. However, the crisis is not resolved.
- Phase three: The survivor is ready to begin to deal with the feelings associated with the assault/abuse. This phase usually involves re-experiencing feelings, thoughts and memories of the assault/abuse. This healing process may vary in duration.
Throughout all three phases, survivors need supportive people (friends, family, loved ones). A survivor support group and/or a counselor can also be of help.
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How to help a survivor of recent sexual assault/abuse
- Talk, listen, respect and be emotionally available to the survivor.
- Accept what the survivor tells you.
- Accept the fact that the assault/abuse happened.
- Understand that it is not the survivor’s fault.
- Listen nonjudgmentally. Suggest options and actions (medical, psychological and other assistance), but let the survivor decide what action to take.
- Let the survivor talk about the incident, but don’t force a discussion.
- Respect and understand that temporarily the survivor may become distant from loved ones.
- Assure the survivor that you will be available to provide support throughout the process of recovery.
- Give the survivor time to heal. Be patient and understand that the healing process takes time.
- Take the initiative to maintain communications with the survivor.
- Moderate your natural tendencies to become overprotective.
- Encourage and accompany the survivor to obtain medical attention. If the survivor wishes to seek criminal action, this should be done as soon as possible after the incident.
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Feelings you might experience while helping the survivor
In helping the survivor, here are some feelings you may experience:
- The survivor’s dependence on you may feel overwhelming.
- Recovery can be a long, slow process that may take years. You may fear that the survivor will never be the same again.
You may feel guilty that you did not prevent the assault/abuse. It is neither your fault, nor the survivor's. The perpetrator committed the crime – not you.
- Your closeness to the survivor’s experience may underline the vulnerability to violence that we are all subject to. You may feel vulnerable because you realize that it could happen to you.
- If you are the same sex as the perpetrator, you may be afraid you will be associated with the perpetrator.
- If you are a sexual partner, you may be afraid to have sex with the survivor.
- It is important to realize that your feelings are natural. Accept your feelings and try to understand and to get help for yourself.
How to help yourself
- Talk with people you can trust. You too need support from others.
- If you are a male and the survivor is a female, do not take personally any hatred she feels towards men. Her anger with the perpetrator may generalize into a temporary anger toward all men.
- Talk to a counselor or call a rape crisis hotline. It is hard to witness someone in emotional pain. Take care of yourself as you help the survivor.
- Educate yourself about rape and rape prevention.
- Moderate your stress levels through activities with other friends and/or through "alone time.”
- Do not expect to be able to make the survivor feel better all of the time.
- Do not blame the survivor. Even when you feel poor judgments were made by the survivor — no one deserves to be sexually assaulted or abused.
- Do not blame yourself. The only person who is at fault is the person who committed the crime.
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