The increase in visibility of stories of sexual assault represents an undeniable and important movement.
Figuring out how to talk with your adolescent about assault and trauma is an important task. Though it can feel daunting to broach this subject with your teen, conversations about sexual assault, coercion into sexual behavior, and consent are critical to have with all adolescents. They offer an opportunity to reduce shame and silence around experiences of assault and the resulting trauma they can cause.
Where do I begin?
It can help to start with a common understanding of trauma.
Trauma can result when someone directly experiences something terrible, or when they witness or hear about someone else experiencing a terrible event. When this happens, their mind and body may respond automatically in ways that are meant to protect them. Some of the responses may push them to fight or flee; other responses freeze their body in place.
PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) is considered nonrecovery from a trauma-inducing event. Most individuals have symptoms of trauma in the aftermath of a terrible event. If symptoms do not go away it is called PTSD.
So, why do some people end up with PTSD and others do not?
We do not yet have a complete answer to this question. However, some research suggests that PTSD is associated with avoidance of thinking about the traumaticevent.
People may find themselves stuck on thoughts like “I deserved it,” “It was my fault,” “I could have stopped it,” “I knew better,” or “if I had fought back I would have been safe.” These thoughts and beliefs can make it hard to process the event. They often leave people stuck ruminating on how it "could or should" have happened. There is no fault in getting stuck on thoughts or finding oneself avoiding traumatic memories. It happens and should not be considered a sign of weakness or a failure.
Sometimes people get stuck because they feel isolated by their experience. Talking about traumatic events can allow some individuals to reduce this isolation, challenge some of their thoughts, and face their feared memories. However, this should be done with great care and is certainly not a requirement for trauma survivors.
How do I talk with my adolescent about assault and coercion?
First, adopt a non-judgmental stance. No one deserves to experience sexual assault, and there is no way a person can cause themselves to be sexually assaulted. It does not matter how they look, what they are wearing, or where they are when it happens. It does not matter if they drank more than they intended or trusted the wrong person. Sexual assault happens to people of all identities and walks of life.
If it helps, think about sexual assault as preventable by stopping perpetrators of assault. This reduces some of the victim blaming that can occur when we try to find reasons why an assault occurred.
Ask and then be ready to listen.
Ask your adolescent what they think about the stories coming out.
Ask them how their school/team/church or other organizations they are a part of have handled incidents of assault.
Ask them what they will try to do if they experience assault or coercion, or if they witness someone who is at risk for either.
Part of the conversation can focus on how to help another person as best one can while keeping yourself safe.
Another part of the conversation can plan for what the two of you will do if your adolescent tells you about their experience of assault or coercion, or that of a friend or classmate. This can include (but is not limited to) a trip to the Emergency Room, reporting concerns to school or police, seeking mental health support, and coping with your own feelings of distress.
Talking with your adolescent ahead of time allows the two of you to think through what you would do as a team, which in turn may reduce barriers to talking in times of distress.
The conversation about sexual assault has been started. It is now up to you to begin to break down any barriers to talking about it with the adolescents in your life.