As a parent, learning that your student has been victimized in any way is shocking and upsetting, but learning that they have been a victim of sexual violence may be particularly difficult to bear. The situation can be much harder to deal with when they are away at college and you can't physically be there for them. If your student turns to you for help after a sexual assault, there are many ways that you can show your support despite the distance.
It is important to know that it is natural to feel angry, hurt and to have feelings of self-blame or helplessness. As a parent, your first reaction may be to try to "fix" the situation or make everything okay even while knowing this approach is not a viable option under these circumstances. Here are some strategies that you may find useful as you seek to help them recover from this trauma:
Remember that it's often very difficult for a victim to come forward and share their story and your reaction may have an impact on whether or not they choose to continue to share this information with others and seek further support. Tell your student that you believe them and you want to support them in any way that you can.
It is natural when listening to a story to want to ask questions and get details about what transpired. In this situation, however, it is best to allow the victim to control what and how much they would like to tell you about the incident. You should listen actively and non-judgmentally. Reiterate that you are there to listen and support and allow the victim to dictate when and how much they wish to say.
Assure them that it is not their fault.
Self-blame is common among victims of sexual violence. It is important that, as their parent, you help the victim understand that no matter what happened—it was not their fault. It can be very hard for parents to hear the circumstances of their child's assault, especially if they voluntarily consumed alcohol or drugs, engaged in other consensual sexual conduct, or was involved in any other activities of which you might not approve. Try to keep these thoughts to yourself until much later—there will always be time to discuss these issues. In the immediate term, your student needs your unequivocal support as they begin the healing process.
Allow your student to control next steps.
It is natural to want to try to fix the problem but know that healing from this event will take a great deal of time and your student must maintain the ability to choose how they wish to go about that healing process. You might feel tempted to push them to seek legal justice or other types of "solutions," but there is no way to make an assault go away. You should provide advice, guidance and information about their options for additional support, but allow them to decide if, when and how they will pursue these resources.
Understand if they do not tell you about the assault immediately.
Be understanding if they chose not to tell you about the assault immediately or if they did not come to you first. There are a number of reasons why they might avoid telling you about it, but rather than focusing on why they delayed coming to you, you should direct your energy into helping them heal. Try not to ask them to defend or justify their decision.
Control your emotions.
Be honest with your student about your feelings. It is okay to grieve with them, but control your emotions when talking about the assault. You will probably feel many things including sadness, anger, guilt or even shame, but try not to let your feelings overshadow those of your student. It is hard for children to see their parents struggle, and they might feel guilty for upsetting you if your emotions get out of hand.
Don't forget to support yourself.
Supporting your student through a trauma can be a difficult and emotionally draining experience for those in the support role as well. Recognize this and don't hesitate to seek help and support for yourself when you need it. You cannot effectively support your loved ones without being mindful of your own health and well-being.