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Sharp Health News

Talking with teens about sexual assault

Dec. 5, 2018

Talking with teens about sexual assault

From the #MeToo movement to news reports of people in positions of power abusing and harassing others, sexual assault has been on our collective minds. Unfortunately, adults aren't the only ones challenged with the topic — or, tragically, the abuse.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 2 out of 3 sexual assault victims are 12 to 17 years old. A shocking 87 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds report that they have experienced sexual harassment, whether verbal, written or physical.

Sexual assault is sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the victim. This can include everything from unwanted touching to rape.

Harassment comes in a variety of forms, from unwelcome sexual advances to requests for sexual favors, remarks about a person's appearance, comments related to a person's gender or any unwelcome remarks of a sexual nature. These statements can be made in person, during a phone call or in written correspondence, such as emails, text messages or social media posts.

Dr. Megan Wilson, a clinical psychologist with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, says that parents can play a key role in helping to combat sexual assault and allowing young people to discuss and heal from sexual abuse or harassment.

How can parents approach the subject of sexual assault with teens?
Your teen is likely familiar with the concept, but may have a lot of confusion about what qualifies as sexual harassment or assault. What we model and the choices we make for our own entertainment, friends and behavior all affect our teens, more than what we teach with our words.

Your teen is watching you intently, even if you feel as if they are more interested in friends or privacy right now. What you read, watch on TV, laugh at, who you associate with and the behavior you tolerate in others are opportunities to inform teens about healthy relationships, mutual respect, safety and healthy boundaries.

What are signs of sexual assault or harassment in teens?
You want to look for any development of maladaptive, or unhelpful, behavior. This may include withdrawal, self-injury, the onset of any alcohol or drug use, and changes in eating, weight, grades or personal hygiene. In addition, you may notice mood changes, such as depression, irritability or anxiety, that might appear to be about other things, such as a fixation on school performance.

How should parents respond to a teen that shares they have been sexually assaulted?
First, always praise your teen for their courage in telling someone about the abuse, and validate their experience and the harmful impact it has had on them. The following steps will also lead to healing:

  • Report the suspected assault to law enforcement.
  • Ask "How can I support you? What do you need?" Often, as parents, we are quick to want to "fix" the situation, versus simply listening and comforting.
  • Consider professional therapy for your child if there is depression, anxiety or physical symptoms that interfere with their functioning in the family, with friends or in school.

Is there anything special about the way we discuss sexual assault with young males?
Teen boys are especially guarded and shameful about sexual assault, and less likely to seek help. Communicating to your teen that you know this also happens to males, that you will help them if there is ever a need, and will find someone they feel comfortable talking to, can be all they need to hear. Taking them seriously and not discounting stories that indicate coercion or violation of boundaries can communicate that their bodies are sacred too.

Should parents share their own experiences of sexual assault with teens?
The timing is key if you are considering disclosing your own experiences to help your teen. If they come forward about their own sexual assault or harassment, it is important to first take care of them and remain focused on their experience and getting them the psychological and legal help they may need. Talking about your own history of sexual assault at this time may be received as "normalizing" sexual assault, or labeling it as a normal part of growing up. We want to send the opposite message: "This is not OK. This is a crime and I will help you."

Further down the road in healing, if you choose to share your own history of abuse or assault, share the "headlines," not the details of the abuse. Always ask yourself what your objective is for wanting to share about your own trauma and how it can help your teen, such as, "I want to show them that it's not their fault, and they can use this experience to empower and protect themselves in the future."

How should a parent discuss the difference between assault by someone they know — and possibly care about — versus assault by a stranger?
With acquaintance assault, people often wonder whether it is OK to consent in the past, but not in one particular incident. Friend groups may also be intertwined, which can become a barrier to disclosing an assault, due to fearing the loss of an entire support system.

Assault by loved ones can lead to challenging negative beliefs such as, "I can't trust anyone." Assault from a stranger, on the other hand, can trigger new trauma beliefs about the world, such as "I am never safe," or "All men will do this to me," as fear becomes generalized. However, all assaults should be handled in the same way: listen, validate, report and seek help.

"Above all, be open to talking with your teen, listen intently and validate any experience they may have, even if it might be very difficult for you both," says Dr. Wilson. "Prognosis for recovery from sexual trauma improves when at least one parent believes their teen."

Learn more about common topics introduced in sexuality education and how to discuss these issues with adolescents by talking with your doctor or visiting healthychildren.org. To speak with someone who is trained to help in instances of sexual assault, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE or chat online.

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