Coping with Sexual Assault as a Parent of a Teenager

When it comes to teenagers, many parents are aware of the dangers their daughters face regarding potential sexual assault. The reality is that young women and young men can both be victims of sexual assault or abuse at the hands of family members, teachers, coaches, clergymen, friends, and dates. It is so prevalent that the actual rates of teenage victimization would guarantee that a parent never slept another night of their child's teen years.

The most disturbing aspect of sexual assault and abuse is that a parent cannot prevent these things while still allowing their child the freedom necessary for their personal development. Theoretically, you could lock your child away in their room for years and while it may (or may not) protect them from sexual assault, it would most definitely impede their psychosocial development. So instead, parents are left to send their children out into the world knowing that they may easily become the victim of someone else's heinous nature.

Although there is no guaranteed safety, there are things that your teenager can do to help minimize the likelihood that they could become a victim. Staying in groups of twos or threes, especially at parties and other social events, may help. Abstaining from alcohol use, as boring as it may sound to your teen, can help. Teens should never leave their drinks alone or take a drink someone hands them as it could contain drugs. More than anything let your kids know that they should trust their instincts. Not all kids are very intuitive, but those that are should trust their intuition and respond appropriately when they feel uncertain about a situation.

All of these tips aside, the person responsible for a sexual assault is always the person who does the assault. Regardless of their choices, many of which you may not agree with, your child is never responsible for having been victimized.

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If your child tells you (or someone else) that they have been victimized, believe them and support them 100-percent. Be aware that law in most states requires reporting the sexual assault of a child, by anyone with knowledge of the incident. For professionals that work with children, such as teachers and school administration, doctors and nurses, counselors, and so on, it is also a federal crime not to report the sexual assault of a child. Your child may not want to press charges or report the incident; but as a parent, you have to assume the responsibility of making the report although your child may hate you for it. It is then your ongoing responsibility to provide your child with all of the emotional support necessary to handle the reporting and prosecution of the case.

Please be aware that sexual assault does not always look the same. Some victims are subjected to full rape while others may be victimized through fondling or digital penetration. No two victims handle their situation exactly the same; personality and support systems have a lot to do with how these youths deal with their experience. A child is never overreacting to any level of sexual assault, even if it seems less invasive than another person's victimization. Date and acquaintance rape is the most common type of sexual assault of teenagers. Many teenagers who are raped by a date or an acquaintance may continue dating or being friends with their rapist. This does not mean they were not assaulted. Rather, it is sometimes easier for a child to think of their assault as a bad sexual experience rather than rape. By continuing a relationship with their attacker, they are able (to some degree) to block out what actually happened until they are psychologically able or forced to confront it.
While the parents of teens, especially teenage girls, worry about their child being the victim of a sexual assault, they rarely address the possibility of their child being the perpetrator of an assault. Rapists are not all alike. While most sexual assaults do revolve around the concept of power rather than sex itself, other social norms contribute to the likelihood of an otherwise decent teenager committing sexual assault.

You may or may not have become familiar with the phrase "rape culture." Rape culture is the idea that American society has created and encouraged certain social norms that perpetuate beliefs, values, or attitudes that may result in sexual assault. While the topic covers a broad spectrum, when it comes to teenagers that are typically well behaved but end up sexually assaulting someone, it is usually related to one of two things. Many times, the perpetrator has a sense of entitlement to sex (this being more common among young men whose looks, popularity, or social status has helped to create an expectation that virtually anyone would want to have sex with them). For example, this may involve popular athletes or a rich kid who is used to having girls throw themselves at him. When a girl (or boy) does not respond to their sexual overtures, the perpetrator may feel challenged, insecure, offended, or otherwise angry that they have been rebuffed. These young men will sometimes then force themselves on a victim who was unwilling.
Another common situation for sexual assault among teens is due to a lack of communication. Our society tends to encourage young men to be sexually aggressive (although of course it does not condone rape). We teach our young men and women that girls are supposed to abstain or at least "play hard to get" and that boys are expected to chase them or pursue them sexually even when it appears that they are uninterested.

This situation becomes toxic when you have two individuals who may be flirting or engaging in some light sexual behavior and one of them becomes more aggressive, oftentimes believing that the other party wants sex too. However, the other party may not even be thinking about sex. In many situations, where there is a significant difference in physical or psychological strength, the party who does not want sex may be too scared to say no, believing that the other person may hurt them if they do say no. Sometimes, it just happens so fast that the person who was not expecting sex does not even realize what is happening until sex is being forced upon them.

It is a moral imperative that parents teach their children not to rape. An otherwise good kid may find himself or herself in a situation where they have raped someone without ever intending to do so. This type of situation can produce devastating effects on both parties, the one that was raped and the one that committed the rape.

Moreover, parents teaching their children the art of consent can easily avoid these situations. Help your child understand that just because someone does not say no does not mean that he or she is consenting. Gaining the consent of the other individual can help prevent a terrible situation. Your teen may find the idea of having to ask permission for every new step they take during the act of sex to be awkward. Teach your child, however uncomfortable it may feel that the beautiful part of consent is that it is sexy. Fumbling with unzipping a girl's pants as she says nothing because she is terrified of what is happening (while he does not realize that this is the case) is not nearly as sexy as when a girl tells the boy, "I love it when you lick my neck; are you ready to do that to my nipples?" There is also not much sexier than when you ask someone, "Are you sure you want to do this?" and they respond, "Oh God, yes!" Consent is sexy and there is no good reason not to gain full consent before engaging in sexual activities. Likewise, there is every reason in the world to encourage kids to understand what consent really is.
Drinking, Drugs, and Gangs

Many parents have different ways of addressing the common use of alcohol and drugs by teenagers. Some parents will not allow any drugs in the house, but will allow their teen (and sometimes their teen's friends) to drink openly in the home. These parents tend to believe that it is safer for their teen to drink at home where they are not in danger because the parent can make sure that no one drives under the influence. Few parents are as open and permissive regarding drug use. Some parents do feel that their teen smoking marijuana is not a big deal; virtually all parents that are not drug users themselves forbid their children from any drug use beyond marijuana.

Legally speaking, parents who allow their children to drink alcohol in the home are usually allowed to do so, depending on state laws. However, if a teen's friend is over and has a drink as well, the parents are usually no longer legally protected and they have just broken the law by providing illegal substances to someone else's child. Because the use of (non-medical) marijuana is usually illegal, a parent who provides it to their child or allows their child to partake in it will face legal consequences. If drugs are found in the home, parents will also be held legally accountable that as well.

If you believe or know that your child is or is likely to engage in drinking and/or drug use, address the ramifications of these actions with them. In addition to issues of addiction and abuse of controlled substances, which is no small matter itself, teens who engage in social drinking or drug use are significantly more likely to be involved in major motor vehicle accidents, sexual assaults, physical assaults and battery, and so on.

Communicate with your child that beyond your family's values regarding these issues, is your concern for their safety and well being. Teens who may not be convinced that alcohol is bad on religious grounds may still be able to see the prudence of abstaining from drinking when they consider the statistics of becoming a victim or a perpetrator of sexual assault. Moreover, it is imperative that your teen understands that if they are in any situation where they feel unsafe or do not have a sober driver, they can always call you. To get them to do this, you will have to promise (and deliver) that any anger or disappointment you feel will be overlooked to some degree because the safety of your child matters the most.

Many parents assume that their children will never consider participating in a gang, especially those parents who do not live in inner city areas. Nevertheless, gang life has spread ubiquitously and gangs can now be found in small towns and in the suburbs as well. Parents who are merely hopeful that their child will stay away from these destructive forces may not have the most accurate understanding of gang life and what makes it attractive to teenagers.

For teens that live in areas of high crime, gangs are often a way of feeling as though they are protected. However, whether your teen lives in LA or the middle-of-nowhere, Kentucky, gangs deliver one thing very well and it is something that virtually every teenager wants, a place to belong. For teens without a strong family support system, a gang can often help provide those same feelings of loyalty and acceptance. Few teens join a gang because they want to participate in criminal activities. Although that is what gangs do, teens and adolescents that join usually do so because of the benefits of belonging to the group, not because they are interested in what the group activities are themselves. Therefore, if you believe that your child would never join a gang because he or she is well behaved and unlikely to commit crime, you may find yourself surprised.

If your teen is in a gang or enters a gang at some point, you are doing your child a disservice by not learning more about their situation and helping them find a way out of it. Many gangs do not take kindly to members who want to leave. There is also a mindset within the gang culture that at some point, members may be expected to take the fall for someone else's crime. This is typically presented to the gang member as a matter-of-fact expectation so that fewer members develop extended criminal histories and serve more time in jail. When another member takes the fall for them, the punishments are more evenly dispersed and jail time is limited (which means more money is coming into the gang). If your child comes to a point where they are ready to try to leave the gang, they may encounter severe resistance. Because your teen has benefited in various ways from belonging to the gang, gang leaders typically view exiting members as having owed them something. Many gangs take this quite literally and require a large financial payment for the teen to gain their freedom.

If you find yourself in a situation like this, consult with an attorney who may be able to help you identify resources within the community to help find a way out for your child. If your teen is having a hard time leaving their gang, at some point (hopefully after high school graduation) they may consider joining the military or serving others by enrolling in a service organization such as the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps. By simply relocating your child out of the range of the gang, you may be able to help them gain their freedom. After their time in the service, they usually are able to find other situations and new opportunities so that they do not have to return to the community where their gang exists.