A guide for families of survivors of sexual assault
Talking with your student after the assault
Sexual assault can happen to anyone. As parents/guardians and family members, it can be very difficult and overwhelming to hear that your child has been sexually assaulted. When it happens, it can be hard to know how to act or what to say. Every person responds differently to sexual assault. Frequent survivor responses include feelings of fear, distress, humiliation, anger, confusion, numbness, and guilt. The single most important thing you can do is help your college student feel safe and supported. It is important that your student is allowed to experience and process through their feelings without the fear of having these feelings invalidated or dismissed. The Sexual Harassment & Rape Prevention Program at the University of New Hampshire can provide free confidential support, information, resources, and advocacy to both you and your student to help in the healing process.
When responding to your student after an assault, here are some suggestions on how you can provide support.
- First and most importantly, believe your student when they confide in you and allow them to disclose at their own pace. Do not place blame on your student for the sexual assault, and don’t pressure them to talk. By letting them set the pace, you show that you are focused on your student’s needs. Remember that every person’s healing process is unique.
- Talk with your student about taking the necessary steps they may need to take to protect and ensure their safety. SHARPP advocates are available 24/7 to help with ideas and resource on staying safe.
- Provide your student with confidential resources where they can discuss options so that they can make an informed decision about what to do next. SHARPP is one of these resources. We can help you find others on and off campus, as well.
- Encourage your student to seek medical attention, but understand that your student has the right to decide what medical attention is necessary. Your student may opt to seek care and do an evidence collection kit at the local hospital, seek preventative STD treatment at UNH Health & Wellness or choose to do nothing at this time. Whatever the choice, it’s important that your student make their own choices as a way to regain control of their body.
- Discuss options and ask your student what they want to do next. This may or may not include contacting an advocate and/or the police. Reporting a sexual assault crime is often a very difficult, long, and painful process for survivors. It's not an appropriate option for everyone, but a trained advocate can help your student navigate the options.
- Help your student get the professional care and support they may need. Counseling can be very helpful in assisting your student and yourself through the healing process of coping with an assault. Psychological and Counseling Services is your on-campus resource and SHARPP can provide names of off-campus counseling centers too.
- Listen and try to understand without judgment. Reassure your student that they have your love and support. Listen to the reasons if your student didn’t tell you immediately. They may have been scared of your reaction, felt shame or embarrassment, or tried to protect you. It is very common for survivors to wait before sharing with people they love.
- Help your student distinguish between “if only” and “guilt.” It is common for survivors to blame themselves for what happened. This could make a survivor feel like they could have prevented the assault. Reassure your student that it was not their fault and that the only person responsible is the perpetrator.
- Give control to the survivor. This means allowing the survivor to speak for themselves unless the survivor specifically asks you to. Sexual assault is a crime that takes away an individual’s power. Sexual assault makes the survivor feel invaded, changed, and out of control. It is crucial for survivors to be able to make their own decisions in order to regain power over their own lives.
- Encourage your student to see themselves as a strong, courageous survivor who is reclaiming their life.
- Criticize for them for what they were wearing, being where they were, not resisting more, etc. The only person responsible for the assault is the perpetrator. Everyone has the basic human right to be free from threats, harassment, or attack. Whatever your student did to survive the situation was the right thing to do.
- Downplay what happened by saying it wasn’t that bad or that they should forget about it. Let your student tell you exactly how they feel.
- Sympathize with the abuser. Your student needs your absolute support.
- Blame your student, your spouse/partner, or yourself. Avoid asking “why” questions as much as possible because these often imply blame.
How to help your student
During this critical time, your focus needs to be on supporting your student. It’s also important, however, to be sensitive to your own needs and emotions. When talking to your student, avoid taking on the role of detective, judge or jury. Your primary role is to provide support, not to “solve” the case. Asking for too many details can make the survivor think that you don’t believe them or may cause your student to simply shut down. 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. It’s also important to recognize and honor your own needs, and accept that there will very likely be changes in your relationship with your student as they heal.
- 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 your student’s feelings. 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 feelings with so that your conversations with your student can focus on their needs.
- Try to 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. Your student’s 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.
Getting support for yourself
As you provide support for your student, it’s also important to pay attention to how the information that you learn impacts you. Some of you may be survivors yourselves or have experienced the assault of someone else close to you. That may trigger unresolved feelings from the past. Many people will feel frustrated that they were unable to protect their student. It’s normal to feel angry, depressed, helpless and/or overwhelmed when someone we love is assaulted.
If you find yourself feeling this way, consider getting help. Your local crisis center can be a free and confidential place to talk about your feelings and get referrals to local mental health counselors that have experience working on these issues. Take the time to relax and take care of yourself. This may mean taking walks, talking with friends or trying some relaxation techniques.
Taking care of one’s self at a time like this may feel selfish or unnecessary, but it’s important to remember that your student needs you. If they see you having difficulty, your student may feel that they need to take care of you and therefore focus less on their own healing.