Not many parents jump at the opportunity to have the talk with their children. Oftentimes they dread that painfully awkward day, and hope that sexual behaviour is something that they can leave to their children’s school teachers or even peers to explain. However, research consistently tells us that young people greatly benefit from—and actually more often prefer—sex education communicated to them through their parents compared to other resources (e.g. peers, the internet, etc.). This is probably surprising to most of us. Unfortunately, we often think just the opposite, and discourage ourselves from engaging in that talk, which subsequently inhibits our children from navigating their sexual health as best they could be.
Now, just because this discussion of sexuality is crucial, does not mean it’s easy. Sure, there will be the relatively easy parts; as in, disclosing to your child that most—if not all—of their friends who refer to themselves as sex gods are in fact virgins, scared to death of how their first sexual encounters will unravel. And, there will be the harder parts, which may involve informing your children of rape culture and our society’s tendency to victim-blame. And, there may be even darker aspects to you and your child’s discussion of sexual wellbeing—aspects I wish no parent had to engage in, but has the power to do so with strength, compassion, and dignity: their child’s sexual victimization.
As RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) explains, “there is no right reaction to hearing that your child has been abused”. The parent may feel livid, scared, sad, or even numb; all these emotions and more are valid in you and your child’s journey of healing together. Together, indeed, is the crucial term here; as previously noted, children whose parents openly discuss and support their sexual wellbeing yield the greatest outcomes, and the same goes for sexual abuse recovery. For instance, in Zajac, Ralston, and Smith’s (2015) longitudinal research study of 118 mothers and their sexually abused children, maternal support was significantly correlated with lower levels of their children’s depression, PTSD, and anger.
The following are suggestions of how to support your child through their healing from sexual abuse:
- Let your child know they did the right thing by disclosing the abuse to you.
o Praise them for their courage in coming forward.
- Consistently communicate the following messages to your child:
o I love you.
o What happened is not your fault.
o I will do everything to keep you safe.
- Remind them of their unique, and beautiful qualities.
o Their abuse does not define who they truly are.
- Seek help if you feel overwhelmed.
o Seeing your loved ones in pain can be absolutely devastating. Engage in self-care, and remember that you best help others when you are in a healthy headspace yourself.
- Express vengeance for the perpetrator.
o This has been shown to increase levels of PTSD among child sexual abuse victims.
o Keep calm, and your child will experience the least amount of anxiety.
- Deny or minimize the sexual abuse.
o If you’re not listening, you’re not learning.
- Feel like you need to fix everything on your own.
o There are plenty of mental health professionals and resources that you can introduce your child to. You are not alone in helping them heal.
Remember, no matter how hard you may try, you cannot control what happens to you or your loved ones. You can, however, control how you respond. Through consistent expressions of love, empathetic support provided by both you and professionals, as well as ensuring your own mental health is in-check, your family can begin to recover together from such a distressing tragedy.