6 Dos and 6 Don'ts For Helping Your Child Deal With a Sexual Assault

Sex assault is all over the news recently, and many survivors are getting triggered. As a parent or loved one of a survivor, it’s important to learn some strategies to help your child both immediately after their assault, and later in their life when their trauma can resurface due to unforeseen circumstances, like what’s happening in the current media. 

Here are 6 Do’s and Don’ts for Helping your Child Deal with a Sexual Assault:

Do:

  1. Believe them, even if what they say doesn't seem to make sense to you.

  2. Listen to them. It is usually much more helpful to listen than to ask questions.

  3. Be angry at the perpetrator, but keep your attention on your child and not on the perp.

  4. Support them while they make decisions, even if you disagree with what they decide.

  5. Help other loved ones respect their privacy and respond with respect.

  6. Understand that they will blame themselves for the assault. Don’t agree with their self blame. Assure them that the perpetrator is the one to blame.

Don’t:

  1. Seek revenge. This can re-traumatize them, and cause them to worry that you might make the situation worse.

  2. Blame them. While they may have taken some risks (as we all do, all the time), they did not decide or expect to be raped. 

  3. Disrespect their privacy by prying, inquiring or pressing them to tell you what happened. Let them tell you the details they want to bring up, when they're ready.

  4. Ask “why” about anything related to the assault. While it’s normal to want to understand why things happened, asking your child to come up with those answers can sound like you’re blaming them for their own assault. 

  5. Take charge of the situation. One of the most damaging things about being raped can be having control of one's body taken away. A natural response is to try to regain a sense of control, often by resisting decisions made by others.

  6. Assume that they don’t trust you or value your support if they don’t open up to you. It is much more likely that they don’t trust themselves to discuss the situation, or are not yet clear in their own mind about their feelings or thoughts.

Here are a couple of other important resources to help you support your young adult survivor. 

First, this article is a very good and thorough discussion of how to help a daughter who has been sexually assaulted: http://www.capefearpsych.org/documents/Rape-parentsguide.pdf

Second, here is a compilation of advice from advocates, doctors and legal experts for parents of a college student who has been sexually assaulted: https://grownandflown.com/rape-in-college-parents-need/

The most important thing to remember is that if your child has suffered a trauma of sexual assault, their feelings of fear, shame, guilt, sadness, anger, or other can get activated and resurface in unpredictable ways. For example, they may get triggered when engaging in or overhearing a conversation, seeing a story on the news, watching a movie, or scrolling through social media. Knowing these 6 do’s and don’ts for those occasions can help you prepare yourself for when that happens, so you can be a source of support in moments when they need it most. 

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I’m delighted to introduce Arianna Stout, a Pilates instructor in Boulder who teaches from her own private studio and also through the Boulder Parks and Rec Pilates program. This interview was especially fun for me, because I have done Pilates for many years, most recently with Arianna. It was actually during a Pilates session with Arianna that I had the brainstorm for this interview series! As I was working in that session, I noticed that Pilates often creates for me an experience that is just the type of healing experience that I am always striving to help my clients find. 

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What if I Can’t Afford Counseling?

Unfortunately, a sad truth about counseling is that it can be expensive.  In Boulder, CO, where I work, typical fees for a 50 minute session seem to range between about $90 and $150. If you don’t have health insurance that covers counseling, or don’t want to use it (for example, if you are a teen who doesn’t want to involve parents, or if you don’t want a of record of your counseling history), or if you’ve already used up the few sessions your insurance covers, then what do you do?

The first place you may think of for low-cost counseling is a community mental health center. If you have a serious mental health problem, and limited resources, it is definitely worth checking with your local mental health center to see if they can help.  Unfortunately, mental health centers are usually overtasked, and underfunded.  Therefore, it may take some time to receive services at a mental health center.  

But don’t assume that that is your only option.  People with less serious needs, and/or some resources, may find that it is also possible to find relatively low cost counseling from other providers.  One option is to look for counselors who accept sliding-scale fees. This means that the fees are adjusted depending on the client’s ability to pay.  Other counselors may offer lower fees for a limited number of sessions, for clients with temporary financial difficulties.  Some counselors who accept these lower fee arrangements may be less experienced, but still well trained and qualified to work with you.

One way to find counselors in your area who offer a sliding fee scale is to search the Psychology Today Find a Therapist web site.  You can search by zip code, or state and city.  Then check the profiles of the counselors you find who look good to you.  In each profile there is a Finances section that shows their typical fees, and whether they use a sliding scale.  If they do, then it might be worth calling them to see if they will accept what you can afford to pay.  If not, they may be able to refer you to someone who will.

If you are lucky, there may be counseling organizations in your area that help you find low-cost counseling.  For example, in Boulder there is a counseling cooperative, called Boulder Counseling Cooperative, to which you can pay a modest annual fee ($50 to $125) and then relatively low per-session fees ($20 to $35).  The fees you pay depend on your income, and the counselors are well qualified, licensed professionals. 

Have you found affordable counseling in other ways?  Write in and let us know how you found it.

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Peg Shippert is a psychotherapist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado.  She has a deep passion for working with survivors of sexual violence and other traumas.  She does offer a sliding fee scale.

Some Great Guided Visualizations

Sometimes dwelling on big problems like sexual violence can get a person down.  So, this week I’d like to point out a resource that I find helpful when I need some rejuvenating and resourcing.  I initially found the guided visualizations provided by Belleruth Neparstek and others at Healing Journeys, Inc. years ago when I was facing a scary medical procedure.  Her soothing voice and gentle guidance helped me to feel supported in my journey, and confident in the outcome.  I am convinced that they significantly reduced my stress going into the procedure, and improved the speed of my recovery.

I was reminded of Belleruth’s work recently by a consultation group in which I participate.  The discussion there inspired me to revisit the Healing Journeys web site, where I found several gems that I now own, or have placed high on my wish list.  My favorite discovery is that Belleruth, a psychotherapist herself, has produced guided visualizations specifically for those suffering from post traumatic stress.  On the site, Belleruth claims that her “Healing Trauma” guided imagery is the best work she’s done, which I expect means that it is very fine work indeed.  

Belleruth recommends that most people start with guided imagery designed for general stress relief, sleep enhancement, and grief, which sounds like good advice to me.  I find it to be critical to develop good resources for tolerating and containing difficult material before starting to work directly with any trauma.  Fortunately, Healing Journeys provides several guided meditations to help with that.  I am most interested in those by Belleruth herself, and so I have added her “Relieve Stress”, “Healthful Sleep”, and “Ease Grief” MP3s to my wish list as well. 

I have no relationship at all to Belleruth Neparstek or Healing Journeys.  I have simply found guided imagery to be very helpful both personally and professionally.  And I have found Belleruth’s work to be of the highest quality.

What resources do you find useful for taking care of yourself, and building resources for facing life’s more difficult realities?

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Peg Shippert is a psychotherapist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado.  She has a deep passion for working with survivors of sexual violence and other traumas.