7 Ways to Help a Teen Survivor of Sexual Assault
Advice from an advocate for survivors of sexual assault
Posted Jul 19, 2012
It is devastating to discover that a teen you love has been a victim of sexual violence. When faced with their pain and confusion, you may find yourself feeling powerless to help. If the victim is your own child, the sense of grief can be consuming.
Remember, you are not alone. Other parents and allies have walked this healing path and can help guide you and your loved one through recovery.
As the Founder and Director of Survivor Healing and Empowerment, a healing community for survivors of rape, abuse and domestic minor sex-trafficking, I want you to know that there are many ways you can compassionately support the teen survivor in your life. 44% of sexual assault victims are under the age of 18, so we need to carefully assess the unique needs of young men and women who have endured this trauma. Some of the resources I share will be more applicable to teen girls, but many of these suggestions serve survivors of all gender identities.
Here are are 7 tips to help begin this journey to wholeness:
1. Encourage your loved one to express herself. Victims of sexual assault are three times more likely to suffer from depression. Psychologist Dana C. Jack calls depression “the silencing of the self.” Consider finding a counselor who integrates expressive arts therapies (such as art, music or dance therapy). Creative expression helps teens connect with and process the truth of their experience. Writing as A Way of Healing by Louise A. DeSalvo and The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron are excellent sources of encouragement for a survivor who wants to heal through creative expression.
2. Help her explore contemplative practices. A contemplative practice quiets the mind in order to cultivate a personal capacity for deep concentration and insight. Examples include yoga, tai chi, meditation and prayer. This is particularly helpful in healing dissociation, a way that trauma victims disconnect from their experience in order to survive. If your loved one has been abused by a religious figure or someone affiliated with your spiritual community, don’t push religion as a source of healing. Give her space to discover their own spiritual path.
3. Visit the website for Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network. Through this site you can search for your local rape crisis center and learn more about sexual assault. Direct your teen to the Online Hotline, an instant messaging section where she will be connected with a trained advocate who will answer any of her questions. After connecting with your local crisis center, research recovery groups and ask for referrals. She needs to know that she is not alone. Hearing the stories of other survivors helps to heal self-blame and shame. I also highly recommend Invisible Girls: The Truth About Sexual Abuse by Dr. Patti Feuereisen as a recovery companion.
4. Engage her in discussions about the media. Help her dismantle messages that reinforce sexual objectification. Verbal abuse expert, Patricia Evans, says that verbal abuse occurs when someone “tells lies about who you are.” Mainstream media constantly tells lies about who girls are. Make sure that she can critically engage with representations of girls and women that emphasize their value as sexual commodities. For excellent feminist critiques of pop culture in a teen-friendly space, check out Bitch Magazine. SPARK is an innovative organization helping girls differentiate between sexuality and sexualization.
5. Talk about healthy relationships. Surviving sexual assault is one of greatest predictors for your teen to eventually experience some form of relationship violence. Be pro-active in discussing the difference between an abusive and a respectful relationship. Model this in your own life and refer her to loveisrespect.org as well as the sex-positive teen site Scarleteen.com.
6. Honor her boundaries. Ask for permission before touching or hugging the survivor. It is important that she feel in control of her body at all times. You can discuss safety planning, but make sure that you do not take away her freedoms out of your own fear. Check out the Circle of 6, a cutting-edge app that will help her stay safe.
7. Never blame the survivor. Remind her that it is not her fault. She did whatever she needed to in order to survive. Ultimately, the greatest gift you can give is to be a patient, empathetic listener. To learn the basics of empathetic listening, read a book such as Non-Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, PhD.
Be gentle with yourself and your teen during this time of recovery. Self-care is essential for both of you. Do not hesitate to reach out to a counselor or rape crisis center for support as you process what has happened. Sexual assault is devastating, but there is hope for those who choose a healing path.
Brooke Axtell is a Contributing Writer for Forbes focused on women's leadership and gender equality. Her work as a gender violence expert has been featured in many media outlets, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal and Fox News. She is a member of the Speaker's Bureau for Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network as well as the Founder of SHE:Survivor Healing and Empowerment. For additional resources or a consultation, visit brookeaxtell.com.