Rape is one of the things a child would rarely tell their parents about right after it happened; most parents learn about this after they have kept it a secret for a long time while their social problems have worsened at home, at school, in their relationships, etc. Some victims begin strange behaviors such as fits of anger, drug use, or they may suddenly become very moody and withdrawn—more so than is normal. Parents are often baffled by these symptoms before learning of the rape. The effects of rape are not brief and rape is not limited to a quick period of pain and healing. Some survivors may take months or even years to recover, but parents can help by understanding the stages of recovery and how to help in each one.
The symptoms that happen after a rape incident are often called “Rape Trauma Syndrome” (RTS), which describes a series of stages toward recovery. The first phase, acute, begins with the victim’s initial responses right after the incident. The symptoms may include shock, denial, fear, confusion, grief, and trouble making decisions. The most common fear at this stage is that “nobody will believe me.” Incidentally, the single experience most often named by survivors that helped them heal the most was “whether someone I trusted believed me.” During the acute stage there may also be physical symptoms: soreness or injuries from the attack, bleeding, headaches or migraines, lowered immune system, tiredness, nausea, and lack of appetite. Many victims try to conceal these symptoms. Your child may have experienced them privately while pretending in front of you and others that everything in their lives were continuing normally.
Survivors also experiences emotional symptoms that manifest as changes in their personality. Mood swings are common, including lashing out at people close to them who are helpers and supporters. According to psychologists, part of this is a coping skill: they are testing you to see if you are durable as a supporter, and whether you will become angry and attack them or whether you are reliable, calm, and understanding. These are things they want to know before trusting you as a helper; do not let your feelings become bruised by this “testing” process, no matter how intimate you were before the attack. Your daughter may do all of this “lashing out” behavior before they even disclose the rape to anyone, which will probably hurt and confuse you. You may see the victim start smoking, drinking, or using drugs, or having problems at school, or getting involved in toxic relationships, or having bizarre mood swings.
The second phase is one of apparent stabilization. Victims may claim that they have “forgotten” or “dealt with” the rape and resent anyone (or anything) that reminds them of it. It may seem like they have resolved their feelings, but if anything the rape is constantly in the background of their thoughts and is still very upsetting.
The third stage is marked by the return of the distress responses they experienced earlier (depression, anxiety, fear, insomnia, nightmares, drug use, tension headaches, etc.). To them, this can seem like a failure to cope or a complete collapse of their strength and that will frighten them and perhaps aggravate you. Some survivors even have suicidal thoughts at this regression stage (because they think they’re failing themselves and everyone else or they start to believe that these painful feelings will apparently never go away). This is where family relationships undergo the most stress because wives, husbands, parents, and others hadn’t planned on “getting more of the same.” Arguments are common, and their criticisms of you and themselves become very sharp.
There is no easy way to coast through the recovery process, but counselling can help. It can teach them to recognize the steps of recovery so they aren’t so frightened when they happen, and it can teach you how to help them cope. Rape crisis centers usually offer free counselling to survivors at any point, no matter how long after the rape has occurred. I suggest using these counselling opportunities because the counselors will be specially trained and familiar with RTS. Click here to find some rape crisis centers. It is important to note the following:
- Do not tell victims that they “shouldn’t think about it” or “shouldn’t feel that way.” Telling them to ignore their feelings prevents them from resolving them. Even if they seem to be lashing out at themselves or you, try to remind yourself that their anger really isn’t personally directed at you regardless of what they say. If you suggest that they are coping poorly or being immature in their efforts to control their emotions, you only make them feel guilty about themselves and they will become unwilling to share their thought and feelings with you later.
- Try not to get irritated when their emotions and needs put demands on you. Also, do not give up on a counselor just because your daughter or son has relapses or complains about their counselor. The emotional walls around a rape victim’s pain are as strong as cement, and the work of getting through them in counselling can be painful and upsetting for them.
- Do not become angry if their recovery is progressing slower than you would like. People recover in their own ways and at their own speeds.
- Do not act out in violent ways around them, such as fighting, cursing, or driving angrily. It is a mistake to think that these are healthy releases of anger, especially around a person who has been through trauma.
- Rape may have been the victim’s first “sexual” experience, and this can cause them to have unrealistic and frightening beliefs about intimacy and relationships. It is important that they understand that adult intimacy will not leave them feeling dirty or spoiled, that rape does not ruin their chances of enjoying relationships, and that violence is not a part of how adults express themselves sexually. They might know this already, but it’s important to emphasize that fact. They also need to know that rape is a crime of violence, not one of “uncontrolled passion,” and that they bear no responsibility for the violence inflicted on them.
- It is common after a trauma for the survivor’s memories to suppress, change, and recall details out of sequence. Please do not come to the conclusion that the victim is lying if their account of the assault seem to vary over time—this is a normal and well-documented fact of how the mind works after trauma.
- Do not isolate yourself from friends who are also aware of the rape. Neither them nor you have any reason to feel ashamed. Your true friends will be supportive and understanding, and it’s okay for the victim to see you stand up to ignorant comments or treatment.
- If the victim is a young child, s/he may express themselves behaviorally rather than verbally. Be alert for changes such as loss of appetite, withdrawal, changes in sleeping patterns, nightmares, or fear of being alone. Click here for more on that.
- If the crime is reported to the authorities and the victim is a child, parental permission may be required before medical care or legal assistance can be provided. Be there to help. Get more info on that here.
- The evidence exam may also be a first-time experience and can be extremely upsetting to the victim unless parents and medical staff are sensitive. You can insist that no part of the process take place without an advocate from a rape crisis center. An “advocate” is a trained individual whose job is to provide side-by-side support for both the survivor and their family during the medical process. They will also provide you with information about counselling for them, or even for you.