Sexual Assault and Rape: Help for Teens

By Danny Huerta, MSW, LCSW, LSSW
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Beauty from Ashes by Sammie Vasquez Unsplash
Beauty from Ashes by Sammie Vasquez Unsplash
Ways to help teens understand or heal from sexual assault and rape.

The effects of sexual assault and rape are devastating, heartbreaking, and life-altering. I have walked through the incredibly difficult, dark and painful journey of recovery with one too many victims throughout my more than two decades as a therapist. That is why we want to bring up this difficult topic as a way to offer help.

What happens to teens affected by sexual assault or rape

Teens affected by sexual assault or rape have been profoundly violated. This type of assault is not just an attack on the body, but on the victim’s sense of safety and security as well as their personhood. Victims of sexual assault include both both males as well as females and most of them experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, sleep disorders and depression. Rape increases their risk of suicidal thinking and, in some cases, increases the possibility that they will have multiple sexual partners in the future.  

Teens may develop body image issues and may seek to become as unattractive as possible in order to prevent rape or sexual assault from ever happening again. Other devastating effects include substance use or abuse, self-harm, and dissociation from reality. In addition, victims may acquire sexually transmitted infections (STIs), while some women become pregnant as a result of the rape.

Different types of rape

There are at least four different types of rape that are reported, each with their unique devastating dynamics:

  • Stranger Rape – The rape is done by an unknown person.  
  • Statutory Rape – The rape is done to a person that is under the age of consent, which varies by state from 14 to 18-years-of-age.
  • Acquaintance or Date Rape – The rape is done by someone the person and/or family knew.
  • Gang Rape – The rape is done by multiple people and can sometimes be deadly.

Symptoms of teens affected by sexual assault or rape

  • Bruises or other injuries, including possible cutting
  • Sleeping fully clothed or wearing a bathing suit to shower
  • New anxiety, depression, social fears, or fatigue
  • Withdrawing from normal activities or friends
  • Changes in hygiene or attention to appearance, including sudden and significant weight gain or loss
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Plummeting grades
  • Sudden or increased alcohol and/or drug use
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
  • Eating issues – overeating or complete loss of appetite
  • Appear like they suddenly just don’t care

Ways to help your child

Teens affected by rape need their parents more than ever and, in most cases, the family is also in deep grief, anger, sadness, anxiety, and at a loss of what to do. Here are some suggestions: 

Listen and believe:

  • Believe your teen if they say they have been raped. Parents risk minimizing the issue or making them feel responsible by questioning whether the rape actually occurred. Our anxiety as parents, many times, leads us to want to fix what happened. Healing is going to take time and patience.
  • Take time to be present and listen. Their brain is in chaos and fear.  Let them share with you what has happened. Make sure you are completely present with them. Sometimes that may mean taking a walk together, sitting side-by-side or just sitting in silence for a while as they try to talk about what has happened. Our initial impulse as parents is to fix things. This is going to take time, patience, and grief. There is no quick fix to rape.  

Grace

  • Avoid focusing on unsafe behaviors that may have led to unwanted sexual contact. Your daughter does not need a lecture. She needs love. Insights about risky situations and prevention should come in the recovery process, not at the point of disclosure. Your teen needs to feel grace and be treated with dignity. It’s important to tell your teen that it’s not her fault.

Take action

  • If the rape occurred within the last 72 hours, get your child to a hospital. Doctors will be able to treat injuries, collect evidence of an assault and test for STIs. If the rape occurred more than 72 hours before you learn about it, a medical exam is still important.
  • Contact the police. Many victims are reluctant to do this. They don’t want to draw more attention to the violation, or they may want to protect the perpetrator. Also, because rape is a way to control a victim, perpetrators sometimes threaten further assault if the victim talks. It’s important that your child sees you providing safety and taking action in her defense.

Recovery

  • Encourage involvement in a rape recovery group. Victims need to hear from their peers that the crime committed against them was the perpetrator’s fault. This may also make them more willing to receive counseling or talk more openly to you about the experience.

Let your child know you are always available when they want to talk. Then try to get them back into a routine. Your teen will likely struggle at first but resuming their daily routine can help them learn to live normally again.

Being proactive to reduce the risk of rape or sexual assault

Teens need to know that sexual assault or rape is NEVER the victim’s fault. Rape or assault come as a result of the perpetrator’s own issues, including extreme personal and mental health issues and possible substance use/abuse. But to reduce the overall risk of sexual assault and increase awareness and knowledge, parents can have the following intentional conversations with their teens:

Biblical foundations

  • Allow sex to be a topic of conversation in your home. It is most helpful to begin foundational conversations from a Biblical perspective regarding identity, friendships, emotions and sexuality early in a child’s life. Do not avoid difficult topics. If needed, you can say that you will need to gather more information and finish the conversation later. Take some time to pray and seek guidance and wisdom.

Possible dangerous situations

  • Discuss the consequences of using drugs and/or alcohol. These substances are illegal for teens and can also lead to risky behaviors and devastating consequences. One study indicated that in about half of all sexual assaults, alcohol was consumed by the perpetrator and/or the victim.
  • Explore and discuss potential scenarios and situations that may be dangerous, and talk about ways to respond. Help your teen understand that if they find themselves in a situation where drugs or alcohol are being used, they can text you anytime for a ride home without fear of a lecture. Tell them the same escape clause applies for any situation where they feel uncomfortable or threatened. 

Smart dating

  • Teach and model smart dating. Ask to meet a potential date so you can form an impression. Recommend group dates or outings with a youth group. No matter what, trustworthiness needs to be established before teens spend one-on-one time together.
  • Give your teen the confidence to say “no.” It is okay to disappoint others, especially if what they are asking for is inappropriate. If the other person is not happy about being told “no,” that’s alright. Each of us is responsible for our own emotions; we are not responsible for other people’s emotions.

Self-Advocacy

  • Encourage self-advocacy and confidence. Sexual predators/perpetrators look for people who lack confidence because they are less likely to report anything. Learn about and discuss the reality of online predators.  Rape is a way to control another person, so a perpetrator may also be on the lookout for someone who would be easy to control.

Sexual Assault and rape are not just female issues

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, in the United States 1 in 5 females will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, while for males that figure is 1 in 71. Out of those who are sexually assaulted, 91 percent are females, while 9 percent are male.

Rape is the most underreported crime, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. It seems especially likely that many sexual assaults on males would go underreported for various reasons, including not wanting to be seen as weak. Interestingly, only around 15 percent of sexual assaults on men are perpetrated by strangers. The rest are committed by acquaintances, coaches, intimate partners, or other people they know.

Helping your child reach out to peers

What should your child do if they discover that a friend has been raped? Suggest that they:

  • Encourage their friend to talk with a parent, school counselor or trusted adult. By offering to go with them for help, your child can give their friend the strength to speak out. If they refuse, your child still needs to let an adult know what happened. Keeping a friend’s confidence is important, but keeping a secret like this is damaging. Sometimes being a good friend means doing hard things.
  • Have her friend call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at (800) 656-HOPE (4673) for support.
  • Listen without judging. Your teen’s friend may want to talk about the incident if she knows someone really cares. What she doesn’t need to hear is condemning comments like, “Why would you put yourself in that situation?”
  • Be supportive. Have your teen check in with their friend now and then to see how she’s doing. In addition, let her know that nothing that’s happened has changed the way your teen think of her. Pray for her.

Conversation starters about sexual assault and rape to have with your child

If your child is not a victim of rape, you can still discuss the issue. Talk to your child and encourage him or her to:

Be a noticer

  • Do you know anyone who has been the victim of sexual assault or rape?
  • How can you tell if someone is not a good person to date? What attracts you and why? Why might others be attracted to you?
  • What do your friends at school think of drug and alcohol use? How does it impact them?
  • Since rape is a way to control another person, would you know how to spot a controlling predator?

 Be a builder

  • How can you encourage someone who has gone through something as difficult as rape? What can you do to support them?
  • How are rape victims viewed? What might you do to help them regain the truth about who they are? Can you help them regain the perspective of being made in God’s image?

 Be a connector

  • Do you know of any resources that are available for teens affected by rape? What are they?
  • What kind of help would a perpetrator need?
  • Why is it important to connect a rape victim with necessary resources? What if the victim says he or she will never be your friend again if you tell anyone?

© 2019 by Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. First published on FocusOnTheFamily.com in December.

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About the Author

Danny Huerta Media Profile
Danny Huerta, MSW, LCSW, LSSW

As vice president of the Parenting and Youth department, Danny oversees Focus’ initiatives that equip parents to disciple and mentor the next generation, so that they can thrive in Christ.

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