College is a time when children are celebrating a newly found independence from their parents. But the aftermath of a sexual or violent assault is a time when our children may need us the most. Colleges, through their insistence on confidential handling of survivor complaints, can interfere with parent-child communication by pressuring survivors not to share information with or to ask for help from parents. For many years, millennial parents have been admonished to foster independence in their emerging adult children and avoid ‘helicopter parenting’ at all costs. Parents can feel unprepared and confused about how much and what kind of help to offer, during what is for most survivors a traumatic and stressful health and safety crisis.
Some parents are able to use this crisis to enhance their adult-to-adult relationships with their child, and can have more in-depth, frank conversations about violence and sexual assault, as well as about healthy sexuality. Other parents may feel like they are walking on eggshells around their child, and struggle with having these conversations. If talking with your child is difficult, other parents or adults may help you find the right words. This group can provide a confidential space to do so. Parents as well as survivors need to be reminded that sexual assault is an act of violence and power perpetrated against an individual. It is not sexual activity. There should be no shame for our children or for us. We support each other as we navigate this tricky road. Just like victims and survivors, parents need to be believed, to not feel alone, and that it's not their fault. This group can hopefully give you this much needed support.
Parents of survivors of campus assaults can experience a rollercoaster of emotional and physical reactions. As secondary survivors, it is not unusual to suffer a form of PTSD called secondary PTSD. Everyday activities, once accomplished easily, can feel overwhelming. Patterns of sleeping and eating may be disrupted. Concentration may become difficult. Emotions can run the gamut from anger, to irritability, to sadness, to feeling numb. These difficulties can occur later, after the initial shock has gone. Parents naturally want to be strong for their children, so for some it is only later in their child’s recovery that parents can experience their own pain.
It can be a monumental, ongoing challenge to balance validating the survivor’s feelings with shielding them from your own strong emotions. Parents can feel extremely upset; survivors need parents not to take up too much space with their own pain and anger. It is their trauma, not yours, something your survivor may remind you of repeatedly. Sometimes, survivors will want to talk about their feelings, whereas often, they will want to talk about anything except the assault or abuse. Survivors may get angry at you if you express feelings that they are not yet ready or willing to feel. In fact, survivors may get angry a lot – anger is both a symptom of PTSD, and a means for children to express independence from parents, so survivors may let you have it in more ways than you ever imagined! Parents can find others to speak with, vent with, and cry with so that the survivor feels free to express needs and to cope in their own unique way.
Talk to a therapist. Connect with other parents of survivors. Some parents feel like a complete disaster. In this group, parents who have been through parenting a campus survivor are waiting to meet you with open arms.