Before a Disclosure
No parent or family member wants to think about the possibility that their student could be a victim of sexual violence in any form. However, one of the best things you can do is to educate yourself so that in the event your student comes to you for support because something happened to them or a friend, you are prepared.
It can be scary for for survivors to talk to parents and family members about what happened. They may worry that their families might not believe them, will be disappointed in them, will look at them differently or will blame them for what happened. This is especially true if the person who hurt them is a family member or family friend. Here are a few things you can do to create space for them to come to you if needed:
Remember that they are listening (even if it doesn’t always feel like it!) One thing we hear from survivors is that they are paying attention to how people in their lives are talking about sexual assault to help determine who might be a safe and supportive person to turn to. The way you react to stories about sexual assault in the media or with people you know holds weight. Avoid phrases that might imply blame. Examples include: “She was asking for it with an outfit like that.” “If that person hadn’t gotten so drunk, this never would’ve happened.” “[The victim] is probably lying.” “I don’t understand how sexual assault happens to men- they should just fight back.”
Let your student know you’ll support them. You could say something like- “I hope nothing like sexual assault ever happens to you, but I want you to know that if it does, or if it already has, I’m here to support you. I don’t want you to have to go through that alone.” If the topic of sexual assault comes up on TV or on the radio while you’re with your child, this could be a time to bring it up.
Note: While sexual violence disproportionately impacts cisgender women, transgender men and women, and students who identify as gender non-conforming, sexual violence also impacts cisgender men. Men who are impacted often have a more difficult time coming forward for help. It’s important to have this conversation with students of all genders.
During a Disclosure
Learning that your student has experienced sexual violence- including sexual assault or abuse, sexual exploitation, sexual harassment, or stalking- can be confusing, scary, and extremely upsetting. Based on what we know about sexual violence and trauma in particular, we created the following guide to help you in supporting your student if they disclose to you that they’ve experienced sexual violence.
Thank them for telling you. “Thank you for trusting me enough to share this with me.” It is common for people to wait days, months, or even many years before they disclose to people in their lives.
Don’t expect all the details. For people who have experienced trauma, it is often not helpful to recount every detail. Even though you might be curious, avoid asking them to share the whole story unless they want to tell it. “You can share as much or as little as you want to.”
Validate and listen non-judgmentally. “I’m so sorry that happened.” “I know you know this, but it’s not your fault.” Shame is a common reaction to sexual assault. Many survivors worry that people they tell will not take what they say seriously, think it’s not “that bad,” or will blame them for what happened. Validating their responses will help to ease anxiety they might have about this.
Believe them. “I believe you.” False accusations are rare. Sometimes a person’s memory of events may be muddled or out of order. One reason for this is because of the way our brains process traumatic memories. If your student shares that they were assaulted or abused by someone you know and trust, consider how difficult it probably is for them to be telling you this information. Avoid knee-jerk reactions like, “But he’s such a good guy.” “I thought you loved her as a teacher.” or “I just can’t believe they would do something like this.”
Mirror the language they use. Use whatever language they use instead of labeling the incident(s) yourself. For example, if they say, I was “assaulted,” don’t use the word “raped.”
Avoid questions that could feel blaming. Often we ask questions to show our care or interest. In this case, sometimes questions can imply blame. Avoid questions like, “Where were you?” “Why were you there?” “Were you drinking?” “How did this happen?”
Make sure they are safe. Depending on the circumstances, you may want to check in about ongoing safety. “Do you feel safe from that person now?” If the incident happened very recently, they may need medical treatment. If it happened within 5 days, they have the option for forensic evidence collection. “I remember reading that some options are time sensitive- like forensic evidence collection or medical treatment like HIV prevention. What do you think about those options?” Northeastern University Police Department can provide free transportation if they want to be taken to the hospital. Staff at the Sexual Violence Resource Center can help to explain the options regarding medical treatment and evidence collection. If they are in Boston, a medical advocate from Boston Area Rape Crisis Center will meet them at the hospital. Our Get Help: Sexual Assault page includes more information on possible immediate steps to take after an assault.
Respect their power and choice. Since sexual violence is a crime about power and control, it’s especially important to respect your student’s power and choice in the aftermath. It’s normal to want to fix things or take control of the situation because you want what’s best for your student, but it’s important that they feel they can choose how they want to proceed and are supported in whatever choices they make. “How can I support you?” “What do you need from me right now?” If they are having trouble answering these questions, you could try providing options.
Educate yourself in order to support them. Learning about common reactions to trauma might help you to normalize what’s going on for them. For example, they may have trouble sleeping, may be anxious or irritable, may be jumpy and hyper alert. Our We Believe You Guide provides information on trauma and coping skills for survivors of sexual violence. It may also be helpful for you to familiarize yourself with available resources so that you can relay the options.
Be mindful that physical touch may not be helpful for your student. Every survivor is different but many find that especially right after an assault, they do not wish to be touched even by those they love and trust. Ask if it’s okay to give them a hug or to put a hand on their shoulder. “Can I give you a hug?”
Check in with yourself throughout the disclosure especially if you have a history of trauma. Are you feeling anger? Hurt? Disbelief? Sadness? Are you feeling triggered because of experiences you’ve had? It’s normal to feel many different things when someone you love tells you they’ve been hurt. In the moment, try to keep the conversation focused on your student and what they need.
After a Disclosure
Don’t treat them very differently. Remember your student is a whole person. This one incident does not define who they are. Don’t pity them or bring every conversation back to this. Some sense of normalcy will be healthy. Did you used to talk about your favorite TV show together? Discuss politics? Cook a favorite meal? Continue to find ways to connect that don’t center around the incident(s).
Create a follow up plan. It may be hurtful to your student if you bring up what happened all the time or never again. Avoid saying things like- “Don’t worry we never have to talk about it again.” Try- “Would it be okay if I checked in with you about this from time to time?” “What would be helpful from me going forward? I’m always here whenever you want to talk about it.”
Respect their privacy. It’s really important that they get to decide who to tell and when to tell them.
Know that healing takes time. The time it takes can be different for everyone. Healing is not linear- sometimes your child might be doing better and then months or even years later, some of their symptoms come back. This is really normal. Continue to check in with them and provide support.
Take care of yourself. It’s common for friends and family to need support too. If you are in the Boston area, the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center holds a support group for family and friends of survivors– Your local area may have similar resources. If you seek support from family and friends, be mindful of your student’s privacy.