The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) defines sexual assault as any sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the victim. This includes attempted rape, fondling or unwanted sexual touching, forcing a victim to perform sexual acts or penetration of the victim’s body.
During the month of April, communities are encouraged to come together, bring attention and have conversations around the presence of sexual assault in our society. Sexual assault can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Many schools lack the necessary programs to educate children and their families on how to prepare and handle these situations, so it is recommended that you take the time to educate yourself and talk with your child about sexual assault.
The conversations you will have with your child about sexual consent will vary based on their age. It may start by simply explaining to them that certain body parts are “private” and should never be touched or looked at by others. You should talk with them about being more than comfortable telling others “no” when they are being touched in a way that makes them uncomfortable. If they are ever in a situation where they believe someone is sexually assaulting them and are told to keep it a secret, they should always come and tell you. Make them feel assured that this will never get them into any trouble but is necessary and the right thing to do in these situations.
Give them realistic examples of appropriate and inappropriate physical contact. Appropriate physical contact could include helping a classmate pick up the books they dropped or holding an adult's hand when crossing a busy street. The goal is for your child to have a clear understanding of what is considered sexual assault and the steps they can take to put a stop to it. One of the most important points you need to make is that you will always be there to listen and never judge. Your child needs to know that you will make the time for them when they need to talk to you about serious issues like sexual assault.
For teenagers, you can dive a bit deeper. Kids often have the mindset that “this would never happen to me” or “this doesn’t actually happen”. They are naive to the increased presence of sexual assault in social, school and professional settings. Not to mention, the internet can often become an unsafe space where children are victimized. You may need to share specific stories with them or bring in statistics to show how relevant it can be. Teach them that 93% of victims know their perpetrator so just because you know the person does not make it acceptable. Encourage them to also be a support system to their friends if they ever find themselves in a sexual assault situation. This can be a life-saving factor to those who are victims of rape or unwanted sexual contact.
As soon as your child begins to spend time under the supervision of other adults, you should have these conversations. From then on, they should be a constant, open dialogue in your home. The more it is talked about, the more comfortable your child will feel coming to you with questions or when they are in need of help.
No parent wants to imagine a situation where their child has been a victim of sexual assault and requires assistance. But, it is necessary that you educate yourself on the available resources for recovery so that you can support your child in every way possible. Sexual assault can take a toll on one’s mental health and post-trauma treatment should be taken very seriously. Mental Health America has found that victims often feel shameful, confused, guilty and have a need to isolate themselves after being sexually assaulted. They are at an increased risk for developing mental health disorders like depression, PTSD, substance use disorders, eating disorders and anxiety. If a victim receives negative or judgmental reactions from family and friends after opening up about their sexual assault experience, they are more likely to have worsened mental health.
As a parent, you must be prepared to tackle these issues with your child. Here are a few ways you can help a sexual assault survivor.
If sexual assault is a conversation that is avoided in your home or makes you or your child uncomfortable, it’s time to make a change. Did you know that one in six women have been a victim of attempted or completed rape and an American is sexually assaulted every seventy-three seconds? It has become far too common of an occurrence for you to be tip-toeing around. By having consistent conversations, your child will become more comfortable asking you questions about what is considered sexual assault, what to do if they find themselves in a dangerous situation, how they can help their friends if they become victims or how the situation would be handled if they were to become a victim to it. The more open you are to talking about it, the more open your child will be with you. Take this month as an opportunity to initiate these tough conversations and learn about the prevention efforts that can be taken to protect your child from becoming a victim of sexual assault.
If you or someone you know is in need of confidential support, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). For those struggling with mental health disorders, contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264). For additional resources and hotlines, click here.