Note: I’m writing this in she-form, because it is based on my own experience and I am a female. The same applies to boys, of course, I believe.
It’s probably one of the worst nightmares a parent can imagine: your child comes home and tells you about her experience of sexual abuse she just suffered. All the warnings and precautions have failed to protect your child. You have failed. The unspeakable has happened.
How parents react to this situation is still subject to a lot of cultural beliefs and individual emotional and mental capacities. There are a thousand questions to ask and decisions to make. Report to the police? Get treatment? Who will we tell this to? How much will we expose the child (and the parents) to the outside view of things?
It’s hard to imagine such a situation as anything other than a moment of torment, pain and terror. However, if the parent is able to step out of the thought of already having failed and understand that their trial has just begun, they will find that this is the moment of their greatest opportunity.
I was raped at the age of 16 by a friend. He had been drunk and although I knew he could be incredibly violent in this state I never imagined he would direct his anger at me. I learned my lesson that night. He beat me and raped me before he passed out. I returned to my parents’ house, disappeared under my blankets and didn’t say a word to anyone. My mother knew that something was off, though, and kept insisting until I told her what had happened.
What followed is what I see now as much more traumatizing and crushing as the actual assault. My mother broke down. She completely lost it. I don’t remember her exact words, but she wailed about her never wanting “this” to happen to her daughter after all those times it had happened to her. Then she dragged me over to my dad’s room. My dad was sitting up in the gallery playing video games as my mother stood below and yelled at him. He must have felt assaulted himself by that sudden unexpected fury. It was the ultimate onslaught of accusation and expectation. He had failed to protect me. Now he was supposed to “do something”.
He did nothing. He kept playing his video game. Mouth shut tight. As much as my mother was on fire, he was entirely frozen. Both of them caught in their own traumas, guilt, shame and terror.
It seemed I was not even there.
I vividly remember that odd, cold feeling of being entirely irrelevant in that whole scene. This was not about me. This was about them. Their pain, their war, their terror. Never in my whole life did I feel so unseen, unheard, non-existent.
And that was the end of it. When I asked my mother for this article, she said she had wanted to call the police, but I had been adamant about not reporting the rape. This was 1991, so going to the police was probably a very bad idea anyways and I knew it. I had seen friends going through the system and the outcome had been horrible. In any case, the rape died in our house that very same day.
And with it died my feeling that something ‘real’ (bad) had actually happened to me. That friend called me later and, of course, fervently denied having attacked me. His twin brother challenged me on it, and we ended up getting into a physical fight that cost me a tooth and left an interesting scar on my chin. Over and over again had it confirmed that my experience of having been raped was unreal. At this point, none of that even mattered to me.
For the years to come I beat myself up over what I believed was my own idiocy to make a big deal out of nothing. When I finally talked about the experience, I couldn’t bring myself to call it rape. I referred to it as “somewhat of an assault” or “almost rape”. And I felt deeply ashamed for carrying it with me when so many other women experienced “real rape.”
How would I have expected my parents to react? Had you asked me this on that day, I probably wouldn’t know how to answer. Today I know.
Unless your child needs immediate medical attention, don’t worry about DOING anything at this point. There is only one thing you need to be aware of, truly awakened to: this is not about you. This is not about how good of a parent you are, of whether you should have warned your child more or kept her in the house or sent her to Jiu Jitsu class. This is not about what you or your partner should or can do now to “undo” the assault, because nothing in the world will undo it. Accept it. It happened. It is what it is.
I know that’s hard. And when you are brutally honest it is hard, not only because you don’t want your child to be hurt. It is hard, because YOU don’t want to be hurt. You don’t want to feel like you failed as a parent. You don’t want to feel helpless in the face of your child’s pain.
We all have the desire to protect our children. Of course, you want to do everything in your power to prevent such a thing from happening to your child. The greater the fear, though, the greater the chance that IF it happens despite all precautions, you have no resources to be present, emotionally strong and focused when your child needs you the most.
This is about your child. And the one thing she needs is to know that you hear her, see her and love her. I may sound woowoo to you here, but I’m talking about survival. Listen to your child. Listen to everything. Listen again and again and again.
Listen as the mother. Ask her what this means for her. Do not assume you know what it means. Even if you have been sexually assaulted yourself at some point, do not think you know what it means to your child. Because you don’t. Ask her. What does this mean? How do you feel? What do you need?
Listen as the father! Dad: Don’t think that this is reserved for moms. She may not share as much with you as with her mom, but that doesn’t mean you should quietly disappear from the scene. Make yourself available. Remind her of how loving man is.
What do you want to do right this moment? No, I’m not talking about pressuring her into a decision about reporting the incident. I’m talking about what is happening for your child right in this moment. Breathe with her. Tell her you love her. Tell her that whatever she wants, needs and feels is what matters. That whatever she did was okay. She had a choice and she chose survival. Tell her that you are here with her and you will love her through all the pain until she remembers that she is okay. Be there. Stay there. Even when she shoves you away. Even when she lashes out. Be there.
Rape does not need to destroy anyone. Turning away from the pain does.