Rape (also called sexual assault) is about power, not sex. A rapist uses actual or threatened force or violence to exert control over another human being. Some rapists use drugs or alcohol to take away a person’s ability to fight back.
Rape is a crime, whether the person committing it is a stranger, date, acquaintance, or family member.
No matter how it happened, rape is frightening and traumatic. Someone who has been raped needs care, comfort, and a way to heal.
As a parent, how can you support a child who has been raped? Here’s on overview of the tools you’ll need to help your child.
Signs to Know
It can be hard to help a child who’s keeping a secret from you. Preteens and teenagers often turn to their friends to discuss deeply personal issues — and, unfortunately, something as serious as rape is no exception.
Perhaps your child fears you will get angry, thinking he or she “brought it on” in some way; perhaps you don’t openly discuss sexual issues and he or she would feel uncomfortable telling you.
Whatever the reason, reaching out to your child — and keeping the lines of communication open — is crucial to your relationship. Let your child know, often, that you’re there to listen and want to know if anyone ever harms him or her.
Someone who’s been raped might feel angered, frightened, numb, degraded, or confused. It’s also normal to feel ashamed or embarrassed. Some people withdraw from friends and family. Others don’t want to be alone. Some feel depressed, anxious, or nervous.
Sometimes the feelings surrounding rape may show up in physical ways, such as trouble sleeping or eating. It may be hard to concentrate in school or to participate in everyday activities. Experts often refer to these emotions — and their physical side effects — as rape trauma syndrome. The best way to work through them is with professional help.
Seek Medical Care
If your child has confided in you that he or she is the victim of rape, it’s important to seek medical care right away. A doctor will need to check for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and internal injuries.
Most communities have local rape hotlines listed in the phone book that can counsel you about where to go for medical help. You also can call the national sexual assault hotline at (800) 656-HOPE. Most medical centers and hospital emergency departments have doctors and counselors who have been trained to take care of someone who has been raped.
Your child should get medical attention right away without changing clothes, showering, douching, or washing. It can be hard not to clean up, of course — it’s a natural human instinct to wash away all traces of a sexual assault. But being examined right away is the best way to ensure proper medical treatment.
What to Expect During the Exam
Before the exam, a trained counselor or social worker will listen to your child discuss what happened. Talking to a trained listener can help your child release some of the emotions associated with the experience and start to feel calm and safe again.
The counselor also might talk about the medical exam and what it involves. Each state or jurisdiction can different requirements, but steps in the medical exam are likely to include:
- A medical professional will test for STDs, including HIV/AIDS. These tests may involve taking blood or saliva samples. Although the thought of having an STD after a rape is extremely scary, the quicker one is diagnosed, the more effectively it can be treated. Doctors can start your child on immediate treatment courses for STDs, including HIV/AIDS, which can help protect against developing these diseases.
- If your daughter is raped, a medical professional may treat her for unwanted pregnancy, if she chooses.
- A medical professional will examine your child internally to check for any injury that might have been caused by the rape.
- A medical professional or trained technician may look for and take samples of the rapist’s hair, skin, nails, or bodily fluids from your child’s clothes or body.
- If you think your child has been given a rape drug, a doctor or technician can test for this, too.
Even if your child doesn’t get examined right away, it doesn’t mean that he or she can’t get a checkup later. A person can still go to a doctor or local clinic to get checked out for STDs, pregnancy, or injuries any time after being raped. In some cases, doctors can even gather evidence several days after a rape has occurred.
Exams Important for Prosecuting a Crime
Seeking immediate medical attention is recommended not just to ensure your child’s health and safety, but also to provide documentation if you and your child decide to report the crime.
Medical tests provide the evidence needed to prosecute the rapist if a criminal case is pursued. If you don’t decide to report it, you could change your mind later (this often happens) and having the results of a medical exam can help. Keep in mind, the statutes of limitations on rape only give a person a certain amount of time to pursue legal action, so be sure you know how long you have to report the rape. A local rape crisis center can advise you of the laws in your state.
If your teen has been raped and chooses not to let you know, be aware that laws in some states don’t require parents to be notified if a teenager under age 18 has called a rape crisis center or visited a clinic for evaluation.
Addressing Emotional Health
Those who have been raped sometimes avoid seeking help because they’re afraid that talking about it will bring back memories or feelings that are too painful.
But this can actually do more harm than good. Seeking help and emotional support through a trained professional is the best way to ensure long-term healing. Working through the pain sooner rather than later can help reduce symptoms like nightmares and flashbacks. It can also help someone avoid potentially harmful behaviors and emotions, like major depression or self-injury.
Rape survivors work through feelings differently. Ask your child what sort of counseling is preferable: Some people feel most comfortable talking one-on-one with a therapist. Others find that joining a support group where they can be with other survivors helps them to feel better, get their power back, and move on with their lives. In a support group, they can get help and might help others heal by sharing their experiences and ideas.