Teenagers are more likely to disclose sexual abuse to their friends before they tell their parents or authority personnel (Powers, Ressler, Bradley, 2009). Often, the teen hearing the sexual abuse disclosure may not know how to respond to this devastating information about their friend.
A healthy supportive friendship will allow the teen to feel safe and comfortable to reveal the sexual abuse. If a teen tells a friend who is not in a healthy state of mind or may not be trustworthy, it can cause more harm to the teen who confided in them.
What are some healthy ways to listen to another teenager who is disclosing sexual abuse?
If you know your friend well, you may know what to say to them in the moment; or you may have no idea what to say. Just know that it’s ok if you make a mistake. When we hear information about how a friend is hurt, we may respond with a variety of emotions, like sadness, shock, anger; or we may have to take a moment.
Let’s review some tips for teens on how to listen and communicate when a friend reveals their sexual abuse. This is not an exhaustive list but certainly could be helpful in the given situation.
- If a friend approaches you to share something important about their past, that means they trust you. They feel that you are a safe person to tell about their feelings and know you care about them.
- Look at your friend before they speak. If they seem nervous, be sure to ask them if they would like to go somewhere they feel comfortable and safe.
- Be sure you are sitting down with them, facing them, if that is what they prefer you to do.
- You know your friend. If they need you to sit quietly, please do. If you know your friend needs a gentle joke before they share something serious, please say the joke.
- Put distractions away from you. It would be difficult for your friend to share emotional, sensitive information with you while you are texting on your cell phone or looking at anything other than their face.
- Pay attention to them while they share the details. When they pause or are able to take a breath, keep looking at them and affirm them.
Affirmation example: I am so sorry that happened to you, (name). That is hard. Or, I hear you, (name). This is so hard and sad.
- Don’t rush your friend; let them lead the conversation and share what they feel comfortable sharing.
- Affirm your friend and look at them. You can thank them for sharing this information with you. If the teen stops sharing and becomes silent during the conversation, you can ask your friend if they shared this information with anyone else.
- Please be aware that many professionals and adults over the age of 18 are mandated reporters. This means that they have to report sexual abuse if they heard someone tell them or if they witnessed some form of abuse.
- While this is not the case for a teenage friend under the age of 18, you can encourage your friend to report it to necessary authorities if they don’t want to tell their family first.
- If you are unsure if you should report any abuse, please call the hotlines below to further support your friend or ask questions of counselors on mental health
Powers, A., Ressler, K. J., Bradley, R. G. (2009). The protective role of friendship on the effects of childhood abuse and depression. Depression and Anxiety (2009), 26 (1), 46-53. Doi:10.1002/ea.20534
Tashijian, Goldfarb, Goodman, Quas, & Edelstein (2015). Delay in disclosure of non-parental child sexual abuse in the context of emotional and physical maltreatment: A pilot study. Child Abuse & Neglect, (58), 149-159.
Pennsylvania Sexual Abuse Hotlines
Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR): https://pcar.org/reporting-child-sexual-abuse
Pennsylvania: You can call CHILDLINE to report suspected child sexual abuse (1-800-932-0313). The reporting line is available 24/7.
As a caller of childline, you are also protected as a reporter of child sexual abuse.
National Children’s Advocacy Center
You can all Childhelp, the national child abuse hotline, 1-800-4-A-Child (422-4453).
During the course of therapy, children and caregivers may find that they need to contact therapists for help outside of scheduled sessions. If this happens, please use the following resources:
Reporting Child Abuse
Local Emergency Options
- To speak to your NCAC therapist during office hours (Monday-Thursday from 8:00am to 5:30pm and Friday from 8:00am to 12:00pm), CALL 256-327-3853
- Outside of office hours, you can reach a Helpline counselor 24/7. CALL 256-716-1000 or 211 from a landline
- Outside of office hours, you can also reach a Mental Health Center therapist. CALL 256-533-1970
- To speak with the National Runaway Hotline 24/7, CALL 1-800-621-4000
- To report rape or domestic violence, CALL 911
- To be assessed for hospital admission 24/7, CALL Decatur General West at their Huntsville office at 256-551-2710
- For immediate threat of harm to self or others, CALL 911 or go to the ER.