How you respond can make a huge difference in a teenage survivor’s recovery. Learn what’s helpful, and what’s not.

It is common for survivors of sexual abuse to not want to talk to their parents or caregivers about it, for fear of their reaction, not wanting to upset the family, or a desire to ‘forget about it’ and return to normality.

If you are a parent or caregiver, it is an equally common reaction for you to want to know the details of what has happened to your child.

Hearing your child has been sexually abused can bring forward a range of responses: shock, anger, confusion, denial, fear and powerlessness. This is completely natural, and you need to be aware that your child will be watching you closely, and how you react and what you do will impact how they feel and what they do.

They may watch how you respond and change the way they are coping, depending on how you react.

Part of your role is to navigate your family through this period and cushion the impact of the experience.

However, no matter how well you do this, there’s no guarantee of how smooth the path ahead may be. Don’t be too hard on yourself.

Although we suggest you process your personal responses away from your child, totally hiding your feelings and vulnerabilities may give the impression that what’s happened is not important or even that you don’t care, so let them know that you do.

Your first response (and an understandable parental reaction) is that you might want to know the whole story and all the details of what has happened, but your teenager may not be ready or able to talk with you yet.

They may even want to protect you from the details, or feel they are to blame.

Be careful not to pressure them, even if you feel there are information blanks, as it may cause a retreat or closing down, or even a retraction of the disclosure.

Try not to make too many changes or new rules – they probably want life to go back to ‘normal’ as soon as possible.

Allow them to go places they would have been allowed to go before, as long as they are safe. Talk with them about ways to do this – e.g. taking a fully charged phone, having a code word they can use if they need you to pick them up, and sticking with friends they know and trust. Continuing to be in the social world can be an important part of their recovery.
A part of that social world for teenagers is on-line. This can be a source of support, or sometimes a source of bullying and shame, particularly if the person who caused harm is in the same school or local community. If this is happening, they might need your support while they navigate through this . Check out Netsafe’s information about ways to address online bullying.

Sometimes the fear of doing more harm makes parents step back from their normal parenting style, but young people still need you to protect and guide them, to keep the boundaries.

If a young person’s behaviour becomes difficult, you can be understanding of why they are acting the way they are, but they will still need to know when their behaviour is unacceptable and what the alternative appropriate thing to do is. Make sure your teenager knows that it is their behaviour that is the problem, not them.

What some youth survivors have said:

You tell because you want things to change – it’s got to be worth it.

My family’s response was so important to me. They’re not going to go away – they’re not like friends. You have to be around them for the rest of your life.

I just didn’t think they would believe me. I thought they knew and didn’t care. Believing me showed me they cared for me. It was important to feel believed straight away… a relief!

People say just get over it… they don’t know what you have been through… what you have had to lose. Hearing people say that …makes it worse.