How to Talk to Your Teen About Campus Sexual Assault

If your teen is sexually assaulted while at college, would he or she feel comfortable telling you? The answer might surprise you. The rationale for a lack of trust boils down to a parent’s relationship with his or her child, experts told U.S. News.

If you’re thinking, “My kid doesn’t care what I say,” guess again.

“We have talked to students when they come in as freshman and talk to them as they leave as seniors. The seniors tell us they remember their parents’ conversations with them freshman year, but parents say they weren’t listening at all,” says Carol Stenger, director of the Advocacy Center for Sexual Violence at the University at Albany–SUNY. The center offers services to students – both victims and perpetrators – parents, family and friends.

Quantifying just how many women and men are sexually assaulted on campuses nationwide each year is an ongoing research effort. But one thing is disturbingly clear: The problem persists.

In June, a Washington Post and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation Survey found that 1 in 5 women reports being sexually assaulted on campus. The nationwide poll included more than 1,000 men and women who attended college within the last four years.

These statistics come on the heels of remarks President Barack Obama made last September on the It’s On Us campaign – an educational initiative launched by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault to raise sexual-assault awareness and promote prevention strategies on college campuses.

“An estimated 1 in 5 women has been sexually assaulted during her college years – 1 in 5. Of those assaults, only 12 percent are reported, and of those reported assaults, only a fraction of the offenders are punished,” Obama said. “And while these assaults overwhelmingly happen to women, we know that men are assaulted, too. Men get raped. They’re even less likely to talk about it. We know that sexual assault can happen to anyone, no matter their race, their economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity – and LGBT victims can feel even more isolated, feel even more alone.”

What’s a Parent to Do?

The key is letting your teen know the line of communication is open long before something happens, Stenger says. Starting that intimate conversation might be difficult, but the resulting closeness you’ll share might ease your jitters.

“Use something else as an excuse – a TV show or a news story. [Campus sexual assault is] constantly in the news,” Stenger says. “And say, ‘Hey, let’s talk about this for a second. Have you ever thought about this? Do you feel safe?’”

Or perhaps the best place to have the conversation is in the car, Stenger says, versus the kitchen or family room, where a teen is more apt to walk away.

Dolores Cimini, a licensed psychologist and director of the Middle Earth Peer Assistance Program at the University at Albany and a longtime colleague of Stenger’s, says parents are the first line of defense.

“At the college-selection stage, it’s important for parents to be assertive in asking about what the services are for students that have been sexually assaulted,” Cimini says. These services can exist in many forms, whether offered through an advocacy group or a wellness or counseling center. Once you’ve identified them, make sure your son or daughter knows where to go if he or she needs help.

“Especially during the first 10 weeks of college, stay in touch with your son or daughter and offer a listening ear and support as needed,” Cimini says.

That’s because the first 10 weeks of college are known as the “red zone” – when sexual assaults on U.S. college campuses are more likely to happen, Cimini and Stenger say. After all, it’s a time when many students are searching for that core group to hang out with. It’s also the first time many young people are on their own without parental supervision.

“Communicate with your son or daughter about healthy relationships and the importance of receiving consent before proceeding to more intimate relationships,” Cimini says.

Consent can be a gray area for some parents. While some choose to openly talk to their child about sexual relationships, others may never discuss it. For those who are squeamish when it comes to the sex talk, Stenger recommends parents at least start by discussing the issue of respect.

It’s important for young people to know that if they’re going to have sex with someone, they should be comfortable talking about consent, Stenger says. “If somebody wants to stop and changes their mind, you must stop. Continuing is sexual assault,” she adds.

Talk about mutual respect with sons and daughters, making sure they know that if someone they’re with appears to have consumed too much alcohol or drugs, that individual can’t consent. In 2013, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reported that 39 percent of college students ages 18 to 22 engaged in binge drinking – five or more drinks in one day – in the past month compared with 33.4 percent of their age-matched, non-student peers.

Try not to lecture your student, Stenger says. Also, consider letting your teen know that a sealed container may be less likely to be tampered with than a concoction in a bowl, for example, she says.

If your student comes forward about his or her sexual assault, you might find it difficult to react in a rational way. This is a critical time, and parents should be careful not to play the blame game, Cimini and Stenger say.

Steer clear of comments like these:

“You could have avoided this if you weren’t wearing that.”

“Maybe if you weren’t drinking, this wouldn’t have happened.”

“Why did you leave your drink unattended?”

“What were you doing out so late?”

Stenger says parents mean well, but it’s common for victims to blame themselves, and remarks like these only makes matters worse. Instead, let them talk until they finish telling their story, she says. “Try not to ask a million questions. Most won’t want to get into all of the details.”

At some point, your child may want to open up, but now is not the time to address underage or binge drinking. That conversation should have happened long before he or she reached college. Try language such as:

“It’s not your fault.”

“I believe you.”

“What do you want to do next?”

Accept that you cannot fix the problem. Although having an emotional reaction to your child’s experience is normal, try to control your emotions. If your child sees you upset, he or she may revert to self-blame. This is the case whether your child is heterosexual, lesbian, bisexual, gay or transgender, says Vinnie Pompei, director of the Youth Well-Being Project at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, headquartered in the District of Columbia.

“It’s so important and vital as a parent to remind your students throughout their lives [that] they will be loved and supported, guided and respected regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression,” Pompei says.

If your child is coming out to you for the first time immediately following a sexual assault, use the same language guidelines, but with extra encouragement, he adds.

“I would recommend the parent immediately affirm the child coming out and maybe say, ‘First, know that I absolutely love you,’” Pompei says.

Doing this tells your son or daughter they are going to be loved and supported no matter the situation.

If you, a friend or loved one has been a victim of sexual assault, locate a resource center near you by visiting


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