Talking with your Student about the Assault
Sexual assault can happen to anyone. Sometimes it can be extremely difficult and overwhelming to hear that a loved one has been sexually assaulted. You may not know how to feel; how to act; or have a mix of emotions. 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 student feel safe and supported.
Your response matters. It can make all the difference to your student as far as their healing, ability to attend school to graduate, seek professional help, and/or press charges. Your focus needs to be on supporting your student. Supporting a student who has experienced trauma is not easy. Please be sensitive to your own needs and emotions. 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. 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 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 VSU Advocates 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 some suggestions on how you provide support.
- First and most importantly, listen & believe your student when they confide in you and allow them to disclose at their own pace. Your student may doubt themselves, struggle to recall memories or details, but you must believe them. Don’t become frustrated if the story changes. The details will likely come out in bits and pieces. Do not place blame on your student for the sexual assault, and don’t pressure them to talk. By letting them set the pace of the conversation, you show that you are focused on your student’s needs. Reassure your student that they have your love and support. They may have been scared of your reaction, felt shame or embarrassment, or tried to protect you. If your student shares details of the assult that incldue alcohol, drugs, and/or sexual acts or other activities you do not approve off, please keep the judgment to yourself for the time being. The focus needs to be providing unconditional support to your student. If your student thinks you do not believe them, they may not speak further to you or other professionals. It is very common for survivors to wait before sharing with people they love. Remember that every person’s healing journey is unique.
- Seek immediate professional help if your student displays any suicidal behaviors or if you are worried about their emotional or physical well-being.
- Do not ask “WHY?” When you ask “why” questions that generally results in your student shutting down and can negatively impact the student’s recovery and your relationship with your student.
- Be Honest. 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. If you show extreme emotions, your student may find it harder to talk with you and may even feel guilty for upsetting you. It is okay to share your feelings, but make sure your feelings don’t overwhelm your student’s feelings or that the conversation becomes about you. As a loved one of a survivor, you may have reactions of anger, sadness, and shame. You may feel angry at your student for having broken any rules or using poor judgment. The offender is the only one responsible for the assault. No matter how badly you need to vocalize your anger, don’t vent about it to your student or other family members. 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.
- Respect Privacy & Boundaries. Your student has a right and need for privacy. Your student’s boundaries have been violated and reclaiming personal space, power, and control is critical. Respect the time and space it takes to heal after a sexual assault.
- Talk with your student about taking the necessary steps they may need to take to protect and ensure their safety. They may not be ready to take action and/or seek professional help. That is okay. If and when they are ready, VSU Advocates are available to help with ideas and resources on staying safe.
- Provide your student with resources where they can discuss options so that they can make an informed decision about what to do next. VSU Advocates is one of these resources. We can help you find others on and off campus, as well.
- Explain to your student their option 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 (PERK Exam- Physical Evidence Recovery Kit Exam) at the local hospital, seek preventative STD treatment at VSU Student Health 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 power and control of their body.
- Discuss options and ask your student what they want to do next. Remember: “A person who can describe a problem, has the ability to describe a solution. They just need time, space, and resources” - Fatima M. Smith. This may or may not include contacting an advocate and/or the police. Allow them to make decisions moving forward. Discuss if they want to share with other family members and if they decide not to share with other family members that is okay. Respect their decisions. 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.
- Reassure your student that the only person who is responsible is the perpetrator and it is not the student’s fault. You may need to help your student navigate feelings of guilt and “if only.” It is common for survivors to blame themselves for what happened.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. 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. Taking care of yourself 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.
- 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. However, counseling is not for everyone. Some students prefer to use other outlets such as yoga, exercise, spiritual resources, art therapy, etc. If counseling is of interest to your student, VSU Counseling Center is your on-campus resource and VSU Advocates can provide names of off-campus counseling centers too.
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.
Adapted from University of New Hampshire SHARPP and Colgate University.
How to support your student who identifies within the LGBTQ+ Community
Written by Liz Owen of PFLAG
For more information please visit pflag.org
- Lead with love. For some, this will be the natural response. For others, long-held beliefs may get in the way of being able to respond positively and supportively. As best as you can, however, remember this: No matter how easy or difficult learning about your child’s sexual orientation or gender identity is for you, it probably was difficult for them to come out to you. And, while saying “I love you” is one obvious way to express your love for your child, if you find yourself at a loss for words, as many of us do sometimes, a hug can speak volumes.
- Listen with intention. Give your child ample opportunity to open up and share their thoughts and feelings. Whether they want to talk about their hopes for the future, or a situation that happened in school or at work that day, the prospect for open discussion is endless. If you have a sense that your loved one might want to talk, but isn’t doing so on their own, a gentle open-ended question, such as, “How did things go at school/work/church” today, can open the door to dialogue.
- Show subtle support. If overt support is a stretch at first, remember that subtle support can also make a difference. Whether it’s speaking positively about an LGBTQ person you know, or a character from a movie or television show; reflecting out loud about gender or sexualiy issues surfacing in the news; or openly reading and sharing new learning about gender or sexual diversity, these small hints let kids know that you are supportive and understanding.
- Learn the terms. What is sexual orientation? What does it mean to be “bisexual”? Learning the language is a great way to start having important and sometimes challenging conversations. Of course, like every other human on the planet, you will likely make a few mistakes along the way--and that’s okay! Own it, apologize, move on, and work to do better next time. Visit pflag.org/glossary to get started.
Tips for self-support:
- Remember that you’re not alone. According to the Williams Institute, there are more than eight million self-identified LGB people in the U.S., and approximately 1.4 million people who identify as transgender. Other research shows that eight in ten people in the U.S. personally know someone who is LGB, and one in three people know someone who is transgender. In other words, although it may not appear so, there are LGBTQ people everywhere, and there are supportive families and allies everywhere, too. You are not alone in this process.
- Remember that your feelings are valid. There is no one way to react to learning that your child or a loved one is LGBTQ. Some feel happy that their child opened up to them, relief that they know more about their child and can support them, or joy that their child is confident in their self-awareness. Others may have more difficult or complex emotions, such as fear, guilt, sadness, or even anger. These are all normal feelings…and you may experience some or all of them simultaneously.
- Remember that this is a journey. While you want to express your love for your child as quickly as you can (see Tip 1 at the top!), remember that you are in a process; addressing your reaction and moving forward will take time. It is okay to be okay immediately, or okay not to be okay overnight. Take the time you need to explore these feelings.
- Remember that you’re important. Self-care is crucial, which means that even as you are learning how best to support your child or loved one, you must also find support for YOU. Whether you feel isolated or nervous—or interested and excited to connect with other families—it’s important not only to find and talk to people who have gone through what you’re going through, but to have information and resources at your fingertips right when you need them. Visit pflag.org to find a local meeting and helpful resources.