Trigger Warning: This article focuses on sexual violence.
Survivors of sexual violence come from all walks of life and all genders, ages and sexual orientations. Sexual assault involving a young person requires effective communication that is critical to a survivor’s well-being.
If you are a survivor reading this, know that:
- You didn’t do anything wrong.
- You are not alone.
- There is support for you.
- This is hard and you will get through this.
- You are strong and brave.
And if you are a parent or caregiver reading this, know that:
- Your support and love for your child is crucial.
- You will also need support.
- There are laws that will protect your child.
If you are in the school system reading this, know that:
- You can provide a safe and caring environment.
- You play an important role in educating everyone involved.
The Need for Guidance
Laws limiting reproductive rights often compound the difficulty in developing structure and requirements for how and when to provide sex education to young people. As a result, K-12 students are receiving human growth and development education that may or may not involve important lessons on consent, personal boundaries and sexual violence. Educators, families and young people are, therefore, grappling with a layer of questions: What happens when a minor experiences sexual assault? What are the rights and responsibilities of caregivers and educators when working with survivors of sexual assault?
The following information and recommendations are a starting point on what will be a longer journey for everyone involved when a young person experiences a sexual assault.
Terms and Definitions
These terms and definitions can create a common understanding, but this is not an all-inclusive list. When using these terms and definitions with a survivor, be sure to obtain consent to use the terms they prefer.
- Consent: A verbal affirmation of “yes” that a person is a willing participant in a sexual encounter. Silence is not consent. Consent must be affirmative, active and ongoing for any sexual activity. An encounter is no longer consensual if a participant indicates no or stop.
- Sexual Assault: Sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent (RAINN). The terms sexual abuse, sexual violence, and rape could be used interchangeably, depending on the wishes of the survivor.
- Rape: The legal definition for sexual penetration without consent.
Creating Space for Learning and Conversations
No one can anticipate whether they will be involved in a sexual assault, be it as a parent or caregiver, a member of a school community, or firsthand as a survivor. But there are ways for adults to be involved right now by creating safer spaces for conversations and education.
- Be a role model for respectful behavior in all your professional and personal relationships.
- Talk with young people about healthy sexual and physical development and personal boundaries.
- In your role as parent, caregiver or educator, teach young people about consent. Be sure to discuss examples that may appear in texts, historical events or current events.
- Be explicit with children that consent means an active communication of yes. No response at all is not consent. Explain that “not saying or indicating no” is not consent.
- Create signage on consent, sexual assault and supportive resources. Printable resources from Kidpower and the lesson plan, “Rights, Respect, and Responsibility” from Advocates for Youth are good examples.
- Provide education that is inclusive of all genders and sexual orientations. According to the Human Rights Campaign, members of the LGBTQ+ community “face higher rates of hate-motivated violence, which often take the form of sexual assault.”
Having conversations about healthy sexual development and consent provides essential information and builds trust that lets young people know they have support.
The First Step Takes Courage
Talking about a sexual assault is very difficult for survivors. When a young person speaks to a trusted adult or contacts a hotline for an organization such as RAINN, support is essential.
Children and their caregiver or trusted adult can then reach out to a school professional to report an assault, and those professionals should be prepared to give information on next steps. In certain states, law enforcement and child protective services may be involved.
If you are the trusted adult or a school professional, consider the following guidelines when a young person communicates with you about a sexual assault:
- Believe them. Many survivors fear not being understood or being dismissed.
- Be open and honest if it is your responsibility to share the information they disclose. Understand that school professionals in 47 states are mandated by law to report any incident that is considered abuse or neglect of a child.
- Allow the young person to control what, how and with whom they share.
- Tell them that they are brave. It takes immense strength for survivors to make the decision to disclose this information.
- Create a safe space to share and talk.
Keeping survivors at the center of all you do in responding to this situation is crucial. Under no circumstances should you create opinions that anything happened because of what the survivor was wearing, why they were in a certain place, with a certain person, or generally blame or criticize any action that occurred or did not occur. Never create assumptions based on length of time between the assault and the reporting of it, or whether the survivor fought back. Nobody brings a sexual assault upon themselves.
Listening and Holding Space
As a trusted adult, listen actively. Being a supportive listener will create a safe space that allows young people to express their emotions. The National Library of Medicine suggests a response to normalize and validate feelings such as “I know this can be hard to talk about. Thank you for telling me.” Compassionate statements such as “You are not alone in this” can create a supportive space.
Hold your own emotions in check while being there for a young person. You may feel anger or shock, but your calm response is essential for effective communication.
For your own well-being, find ways to share your feelings with someone outside of this experience. Understand and acknowledge that you will be affected as well. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, secondary traumatic stress can occur when one listens to someone’s firsthand experience with trauma. To be strong for the person you are supporting, take care of yourself in a space dedicated to your mental health.
According to survivors of sexual assault, their caregivers and the therapists that serve them, the top advice is to lead with a theme of courage. As one caregiver explains: “Our choice to share our story with the school, therapists and law enforcement involves a tremendous amount of strength and bravery. We don’t need for you to tell us that you are sorry. We don’t need your sympathy. We need your support. We need you to walk alongside us. Every step of this process is extremely difficult and painful. We need you to ask us what we need, not to assume what we need.”
What Happens Now?
Whether or not a legal investigation is occurring, schools should work with all individuals involved to help with the healing process by facilitating ideas, including, but not limited to:
- Moving the survivor and the accused to different classes if they attend the same ones.
- Creating different pathways for the students to avoid any interaction during the day.
- Offering quiet places for breaks during the school day.
- Providing access to therapists, guidance counselors and trusted school professionals.
For example, a school district in Colorado meets with everyone involved and creates individualized student management plans. These plans aim to keep everyone involved safe and supervised to avoid additional repercussions related to an initial assault. They include information on how each space at school—like the bus, classrooms, hallways, and cafeteria—are managed throughout the day.
Know Your IX has resources for districts to use when developing plans.
Community resources are essential for healing. An online search can show resources in your area, and national organizations such as RAINN can help with that search. Dialing 988, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, can lead to the support you need as well. The Human Rights Campaign also has a list of resources geared toward members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Social workers and agencies trained in helping survivors through the legal process can help families understand their rights and next steps in what is often a long and emotionally and physically arduous process. Be sure to find out what support is available near you. In Wisconsin, for example, agencies such as the Sojourner Family Peace Center and BeLEAF Survivors provide wraparound care for survivors and their families.
Rights and Responsibilities
What information do parents and caregivers need to know? The following information is a start:
- Your child has a right to feel safe at school. Be sure to ask them how they are feeling, listen to them and be supportive of their emotions.
- Young people may not have the language available or accessible to explain their feelings, so look for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or changes in behavior.
- Title IX is a federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sex, including gender identity and sexual orientation. If you feel your child is not being kept safe at school, speak with your child’s school about filing a complaint. Look at your school’s website to learn the names of the Title IX coordinators and reach out to them for guidance.
- The legal system and how to navigate it differs by state. Start understanding the details from an organization such as Womens Law, which will help you navigate the legal system and explain rights and protections, including options for pursuing legal action. If legal action becomes a step that you take, there are federal services available locally to your child. Visit the Office for Victims of Crime for more information.
- If an unwanted pregnancy is a concern, look at your local reproductive laws to get educated on the rights that the young person has to an abortion in your state.
Future Implications and Support for Healing
A sexual assault is something that will be a part of a survivor’s life experience. A sexual assault is a trauma, and therefore, a trauma response can happen in one’s body long after an assault has occurred.
Educate yourself on how to navigate a—and in the case of parents and caregivers, your child’s—new normal:
- Understand physical reactions that involve the sympathetic nervous system (involving your flight, fight or freeze response to a danger) and the parasympathetic nervous system (what your body does to relax itself after a perceived threat).
- A freeze response is a normal reaction during a sexual assault. Understand that this may become a conditioned response.
- Learn to identify new and different responses to stressful situations. Gaining this knowledge will help a survivor to learn how to navigate future situations of any stress level.
- Understand the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Seek support and therapy to help your body move through the trauma it has experienced.
It’s important to know a trauma response can happen not only to the survivor but also to their trusted adults and caregivers.
The Importance of Trauma Therapy
It is vital, therefore, that survivors and their families seek counseling for the long term. Feelings of grief, anger, sadness and overwhelm are common and can happen without warning at any time. Finding a counselor trained in trauma is key to regaining a sense of safety, challenging problematic thought patterns, and validating experiences and reactions.
According to Verywell Mind, “Trauma therapy can help you address the traumatic event and process your feelings and emotions. It can give you the opportunity to face your fears in a safe space and learn coping skills that can help you function on a day-to-day basis.”
Angela Povletich, a therapist in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, area suggests the following: “Be aware that everyone responds [to] and heals [from] trauma differently. The timeline is unique to the individual. Since the recovery process may not be linear, it may require more than one treatment modality and having flexibility with the process. While talk therapy can be helpful, there are many therapeutic options such as art, music, dance and mindfulness that can offer opportunities to rebuild empowerment by engaging the whole self.”
One survivor says that “The biggest step in starting the recovery journey is to tell a trusted adult. From this, it starts the climb up the hill to feeling whole again. You start to feel noticed and heard and, for me, it validated what really happened. If you are a survivor reading this, you are heard, you are strong, and you are going to get through the hard times even if it seems like there is not a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Whether you are a survivor or parent or caregiver, know that you are not alone in this process. It will be hard and at times confusing. But many people are ready and willing to help you along this journey.
The following is a short list of the many resources that can help in your next steps:
- RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network): The nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, RAINN provides resources for educators, survivors and their trusted adults and caregivers.
- NSVRC (National Sexual Violence Resource Center): This center’s mission is to provide “research and tools to advocates working on the frontlines to end sexual harassment, assault, and abuse with the understanding that ending sexual violence also means ending racism, sexism and all forms of oppression.”
Resources for Schools
- NASP (National Association of School Psychologists): This searchable website has helpful documents offering schools guidance on sexuality education and sexual harassment.
- That’s Not Cool: This website geared toward teens and educators provides printable resources, videos and social media guidance.
- Stop Sexual Assault in Schools: This organization aims to “provide students, K-12 schools, and organizations resources so that the right to an equal education is not compromised by sexual harassment, sexual assault, and gender discrimination.”
- Equality Now
- United States Department of Justice provides federal information that includes resources, term definitions and next steps.
Trusted Adults and Caregivers
- American Society for the Positive Care of Children: This website provides families with resources for working through ACEs—adverse childhood experiences.
- Love is Respect: This organization works “to disrupt and prevent unhealthy relationships and intimate partner violence by empowering young people through inclusive and equitable education, support, and resources.”
- Anti-Violence Project: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and HIV-affected community support and empowerment through organizing, education, counseling and advocacy.
- Forge: Serves transgender and gender nonconforming survivors of domestic and sexual violence, and can connect individuals to counseling services.