Strategies for Talking to Teens about Sexual Assault

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April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. And the bad news … adolescents and young adults are at highest risk for sexual assault, which includes rape, sexual coercion, and unwanted sexual experiences with and without physical contact. The recent national focus on sexual assault on college campuses is a welcome response. We know that one in five college women will experience sexual assault during this time. And sexual violence happens among younger teens, too. We need to create safe spaces for the young people in our lives to share their experiences.

 

What are some common myths about sexual assault?

Before we can have a conversation with our teens, it is important to understand common myths about sexual assault. We often think that sexual assault happens in a dark alley at the hands of a stranger. However, this is relatively rare. Adolescents and young adults are more likely to know the person who hurts them. They may even be dating this person. Many young people I work with think that that they are expected to have sex with someone if they are dating or going out with him or her. It is also common for young people to think that everyone else is having sex (even if that is not true), so when they are pressured to do something they do not want to do, they might not recognize this experience as sexual assault. Finally, many young people think that if they have been drinking or are wearing certain clothes, they are somehow responsible for being hurt. It is important to remind young people that it is never their fault and that there are safe adults who are there to help them.

How do I talk to my teen about sexual assault?

One strategy for talking to your teen about sexual violence is having a conversation with him or her about what a healthy relationship looks like. We can take this opportunity to emphasize that it is not normal for someone to make their child do something sexual he or she does not want to do and that affirmative consent is necessary when he or she is ready to have sex. That means, not just ‘No means no,’ but also that “Only ‘Yes!’ means yes.”

In these conversations, it is important for us to recognize the numerous pressures young people face from their peers every day regarding sex and substance use, for example, and listen to their concerns. You can also teach teens to be “upstanders,” which includes doing something or saying something to a trusted adult if they see someone hurting another friend.

What questions can I ask my teen if I am concerned?

Young people might feel scared to talk about what they experienced or they might think that what they experienced is a “normal” part of a dating relationship. In my research studies, I interview young women who have experienced some type of abuse. Many young women, though they experienced sexual assault, will not use those words to describe their experiences. So I changed the way I ask about their exposure to abuse. I might say, “Has anyone ever made you do something sexual you didn’t want to do?” or “Has anyone ever said something sexual to you or about you that made you feel uncomfortable?” This allows teens to talk about what they have experienced without having to label themselves. If someone discloses that he or she has been assaulted, you can say, “Thank you for sharing this with me. This is not your fault and you didn’t deserve this to happen to you.” In Pittsburgh, you can reach out to your health care provider in the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine for help with this conversation and connecting young people to important health care services. We can also help connect you to victim advocates in the community who are experts in working with survivors of sexual violence.

What is happening in Pittsburgh (and other resources) to prevent sexual assault?

Sexual violence is preventable. Preventing it requires us to challenge social norms that violence is acceptable, which gets easier the more we talk about it with teens. We need to stand up and speak out as a community that sexual violence is never acceptable. I work with Dr. Elizabeth Miller, who leads the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, on prevention programs in our local middle and high schools and neighborhoods to reduce violence among our young people. Be on the lookout for us in your community. We invite you to become part of the conversation at http://southwestpasaysnomore.org/ — for information on prevention efforts in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Resources

  • Prevention Program: Coaching Boys into Men violence prevention program by Futures Without Violence (coachescorner.org)
  • Local resources: Pittsburgh Action Against Rape – 1-866-363-7273 and Center for Victims 1-866-644-2882
  • National resource: RAINN (Rape, Abuse, Incest, National Network) – 1-800-656-HOPE (1-800-656-4673)

For more information about the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine, call 412-692-6677 or visit www.chp.edu/adolescent.