Talking to Teens about Abuse? Check Your Panic at the Door

By Joelle Casteix
Worthy Adversary
May 28, 2012

[If your kids are younger, start here.]

Talking to your teen about sexual abuse? Don’t worry. Just take a deep breath and keep reading.

Usually, teen victims will reach out to their peers—friends who have no training, few skills and lack the maturity to properly report the abuse to the cops and get the victim help. Many times, the victim will swear the friend to secrecy. The friend, seeing how the victim has already been hurt and betrayed, will readily keep the secret. If the abuser is a teacher of someone the friend knows, the peer will keep the secret out of fear.

It’s a lose-lose: We have another teen who is suffering from vicarious trauma, fear and stress because they are forced to “keep the secret.” This happened in my own case, and the long-term wounds that many of my high school classmates suffered were just as deep and long-lasting as my own. Teen victims are also more likely to be blamed for the abuse (“Why did you keep going back?” “Why didn’t you just punch the guy?” “You must have wanted it.”), so the lifetime effects of the abuse can be more debilitating and shameful for everyone involved.

You’re a parent of a teenager. What the hell do you do now?

First, think about your goal: You want your kid to come to YOU immediately when something shameful, scary, confusing, and painful happens to them or one of their friends.

How do we accomplish the goal?

1) Check your panic at the door. Did you hear me? I’ll say it again: CHECK YOUR PANIC AT THE DOOR! Are you the parent who reads about all of the “teen drug trends” on the internet and goes to bed at night sweating with fear? Do you wag your finger at your teens and tell them they have no idea who is lurking on the internet? Do you tell them that it was NEVER this bad when you were young?

Well, you’re lying. You’re only panicking because you’re old.

Did your teenager roll his eyes at you and shut down? Of course, because you were being a dork. Don’t a dork. Teenagers eat dorks for breakfast.

Truth be told, our kids are drinking less, doing less drugs and engaging in less risker behaviors than they were in the 1970s and 1980s. (I went to high school in the 1980s. Alcohol, drugs and sex were everywhere. My husband’s Irvine High 1980 yearbook class photo sported a four-foot joint. My dad tells stories about his fraternity years—1956-1960— that gross me out.)

2) Sit down with your teen and ask them open-ended, non-threatening questions. Ask them because you are genuinely interested in them and their lives. Ask them what happens at school. Ask them what they see. They may not open up the first time, but slowly, they’ll start telling you. If they ask you if you drank in high school and you did, tell them the truth (but don’t follow it with “but you had better not”). Chances are that your kid will respect you more for telling the truth and open up to you if they have questions.

A great conversation opener may be saying that you remember how hard it was to be a teenager (You couldn’t pay me enough to go back) and you just want to make sure things are okay.

Ask them if they know anyone at school who has been sexually abused. (You can tell them that adults being sexual with teens is never okay). Ask them if they are carrying secrets for themselves or someone else. Ask them about their friends. Ask them about who is dating whom. Then let it go. They’ll remember.

3) Don’t be judgmental. Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t lecture. Don’t interrupt. Don’t lie.

4) Whatever you do, don’t fly off the handle. Make this a general rule and follow it. You can still be a parent and have rules and command respect without yelling and screaming at the drop of a hat. Make it safe for your kid to come to you. Even though your teen will deny it to the moon and back, he wants you to be a safe haven. She wants you to care. They want you to help take care of their problems.

5) Educate yourself on reporting and support. Get the phone numbers for local law enforcement and keep them handy. Call the police desk sergeant and ask him/her the best way to report abuse in your local area. Get the brochure and the phone number for the state mandatory reporting hotline and share it with every mandatory reporter you know. Find out the local rape crisis hotline. You may never need this information. But if you do, or if someone else you know does, you will be able to help immediately and effectively.

It’s not rocket science, as long as you keep your wits about you. Save the panic for the day your kid gets his drivers licence.

Have you had success/failure/frustration talking to your teen about sexual abuse? I’d love to hear …








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