When parents and family members discover their loved-one has been the victim of sexual assault or relationship violence, they may experience a range of feelings and be unsure about what to do. Below are some suggestions for parents and families:
Listen and believe the survivor. Telling family about sexual assault can be very frightening for a survivor. Sexual assault is an act of violence that may traumatize the victim. They might fear that no one will believe them. Believing the survivor will offer them a foundation of support from which to make other decisions.
Allow the survivor to be in control of their healing. This might be the first traumatic event this person has experienced. The urge to rescue them or do everything for them is understandable. They likely want your help. However, what you must remember is sexual assault strips the victim of power and control. Returning power and control to the survivor is crucial for healing. Offer support, but allow the survivor to decide what options to take.
Blame the perpetrator, not the victim. The survivor is not to blame for being victimized. Only the perpetrator is to blame. No matter where the survivor went, what they were doing, or who they were with, the survivor is NOT to blame. The details of the incident matter for helping a survivor heal, but not for portioning out blame. All of the blame is on the perpetrator. Try not to ask "why?" questions, instead focus on comments and questions that validate and do not minimize their experience such as, "No one deserves to be treated in that way" or "Whatever your feelings are right now, they are valid."
Separate your feelings about the victimization from concerns about other issues. If your family member is a victim of sexual assault you may learn unexpected details about their life. You may discover they drink alcohol, consume other drugs, go to parties or engage in sexual activity. This new information may be hurtful or difficult for the family of a survivor. Support the survivor's healing around sexual assault first. Address other issues at a more appropriate time. (If/when you choose to discuss these other behaviors, separate the behaviors from the sexual assault--none of these behaviors cause sexual assault.)
Direct the survivor towards resources and support. Elon provides a number of campus resources for survivors of sexual assault. There are also resources in the local community. Safeline (336-278-3333) is Elon University's 24-hour confidential resource for information, resources and response. Family members may call Safeline or contact Jessica Clark or Felicia Cenca, Elon University's confidential violence responders and campus advocates, for guidance and resources. If you prefer, you can also seek resources for your family member off campus. More information on campus and community resources is located here.
Seek support for yourself. The victimization of a family member can cause you stress, anxiety, fear, anger or other psychological and physical symptoms. If you or a member of your family has been the victim of sexual assault in the past this can be an especially difficult time. Seek help through a therapist, pastoral counselor, local support group or other trained support person to help you understand and work through managing your emotions and be an even stronger support for your loved-one who has been victimized.