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Sexual Assault and Awareness: How to Support and Empower Your Child

The Bark Team  |  April 28, 2020

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**Please note: This blog post was updated on April 6, 2023.**

Content Warning: This article discusses multiple forms of trauma, including sexual assault.

I can’t say what brought you to this resource today. Maybe your child has recently revealed that they’ve experienced sexual violence. Maybe you’re looking for ways to help your kid support a friend who’s gone through it. Maybe you’d just like to be prepared should anything so terrible happen to your own kid. Or perhaps you just happened across this post and aren’t yet sure how it applies to you. Whatever your situation, I’m here to raise your awareness about sexual assault and share resources that can equip you to support the people around you. Whether you’re a parent, a guardian, or just a caring person with a child in your life, this information can help you protect the kids in your community.

Before we get into the intricacies of helping a child heal, please know that while this is a scary topic, learning about ways to support them can help you both feel less powerless in a situation like this. As a survivor of sexual violence myself, I’d like to encourage you to approach this with an open heart. It’s one of the very best things you can do to help.

What You Should Know About Sexual Assault

It’s tempting to assume that your own child will never experience sexual abuse, but the issue is actually far more common than you might think. I know that’s probably not something you want to think about, but I want to encourage you to do so because taking some time to learn about what kids are experiencing could make a big difference in someone’s life.

Facts About Child Abuse

  • Every 9 minutes, evidence of child sex abuse is corroborated or confirmed.
  • Children of all gender identities experience sexual violence.
  • While all children can experience sexual assault, those who have physical or mental disabilities or who have unstable home lives are at greater risk.
  • Children who live in low-income households are more likely to experience sexual abuse.

It’s not always easy to tell if your child has experienced sexual abuse, but keeping an eye out for some potential warning signs can help. If your kid has regressed to wetting the bed again, tries to avoid getting undressed, begins having excessive nightmares, or has sudden knowledge about sexual topics that aren’t typical to their age, it might be a good idea to open up a conversation.

How to Help If Your Kid Has Experienced Sexual Assault

If your child reveals that they have experienced sexual violence — whether through explicit online messages or through in-person interactions — the way you react can really affect how they feel about the experience they’ve had. I know it can be hard to choose your words carefully when you’re in the middle of such a difficult conversation. To give you somewhere to begin, here are some ways you can validate, support, and guide them through their experience so that you can start helping your child as soon as they need you.

Say, “I love you.” 

It’s of utmost importance that you help your child feel loved. They might be worried that you’ll be angry with them about what they’ve experienced, or fear that you’ll view them differently once you know what they’ve been through. Be sure to let them know that you love them just as much as ever.

Tell them it’s not their fault.

People of all ages can feel guilty after becoming victims of sexual assault (even though nothing a person does can make them at fault for experiencing sexual violence), so be sure to assuage this concern early on.

Listen to how they are feeling.

There’s no one “right” reaction to experiencing sexual assault, so take the time to let your child explain in their own words how they’re processing it. This is also a good reminder to pay attention to the ways your child might be communicating non-verbally. For example, if they aren’t ready to talk, they might complain of a headache when you ask them questions. If they need emotional support, they might be more physically affectionate than usual. Keeping an eye out for these subtle signs can help you be sensitive to their needs at any given time.

Say, “I believe you.”

Survivors of sexual violence — especially children — can worry that they won’t be believed when they speak up about what they’ve been through. It takes a tremendous amount of courage and vulnerability to open up about something so upsetting, and dismissing their account can make them feel even more isolated and distressed. Take care to let your kid know that you aren’t questioning whether or not they experienced what they say they did.

Explain that you can help keep them safe.

One tactic perpetrators of sexual violence can use to dissuade children from speaking up is to threaten them. They might say they’ll hurt the child’s family members, share photos or videos from the assault, or even repeat the violence if the child reveals what has happened. Make sure to let your child know that — despite any threats they’ve received — you’re committed to protecting them both physically and emotionally.

Let them open up at their own pace.

Even though you probably have a number of questions about what happened to your child, be sure not to push them to recount each detail unless they’re ready to do so. Let your child feel in control of what they share and when.

How to Raise Your Child’s Awareness About Sexual Assault

Even if your child hasn’t opened up about experiencing sexual violence, it might be a good idea to have a conversation with them about what sexual assault is and what they should know should they ever go through something like this. How much detail you go into depends on your child’s emotional state, their age, and their maturity level, so be sure not to give them too much information if you don’t feel that they’re ready.

I know talking about anything sexual with your child can feel daunting. However, opening a line of communication can not only give them important knowledge, but it can also help them feel comfortable coming to you with any future issues. Begin having conversations about consent at an early age, even if that means talking about something as simple as asking before giving a friend a hug. You can also explain that your child is under no obligation to let someone see or touch them inappropriately — even if that person is a cousin, a coach, or someone else they know very well.

Come up with a plan for what your child should do if they ever find themselves in an uncomfortable situation, and let them know that it’s OK to tell someone “no” in response to a sexual request, even if they’re worried about offending them.

Resources That Can Help

If you’ve recently learned that your child has experienced sexual violence, it’s important to know what resources are at your disposal. Here are some ways you can report the crime:

  • If you believe your child is currently in danger or if you’d like to file a report with your local police station, you can call 911 at any time.
  • You can also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 to talk to someone who is trained to help in situations like this.
  • The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline is also available 24/7 via call or text message at 800-422-4453. Their trained volunteers can guide you through the reporting process.
  • You can learn about mandatory reporting laws in your state by visiting RAINN’s State Law Database.

In addition to ensuring their physical safety, it’s important to support your child’s emotional well-being during this time. Speak with their pediatrician to get a referral for a mental health professional who can help them through the healing process. Please know that your child’s sexual abuse can also be traumatic for you as a parent or guardian, so be sure to seek professional help for yourself if you need it. 

Even though simply thinking about child sex abuse can be upsetting (much less dealing with your own child’s experience), I hope that by raising your awareness about sexual assault, you feel better equipped to help the young people in your life. Take a deep breath, reach out to the people and organizations around you when you need help, and show yourself and your child some extra kindness.

Bark helps families manage and protect their children’s digital lives.

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