Dealing With Sexual Abuse In The Life of a Teenager
The harm caused by sexual abuse is well documented. Victims of sexual abuse deal with a kind of violation that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. And what makes this kind of abuse so complex is that it's often perpetrated by a family member or an acquaintance. Sexual abuse dramatically impacts a person's life. As a youth worker, you may find yourself in a situation where a student comes to you to reveal an instance of sexual abuse. This is an extremely difficult position to be in. However, as a trusted adult, you have a role to play in restoration and healing. This is an important responsibility, one that has to be handled delicately and biblically. Here are some helpful considerations to keep in mind when dealing with a student who has revealed sexual abuse in his or her life, organized into immediate and long-term responses:
Don't Respond With Shock Or Disgust, But With Compassion
In Luke 15:20, we see the father of the prodigal feeling compassion for his son, not disgust or shock at what his son had experienced.
Remember That Complete Confidentiality Is Unlikely, So Don't Promise It
If a student is coming to you to report sexual abuse, it will be necessary to involve parents, youth staff, counselors, and even law enforcement. Explain to a student that you are trustworthy, and you will keep his or her confidence, but if there is information shared about the student being harmed in any way, you are obligated to tell someone.
Don't Offer Simple or Trite Answers
In situations of sexual abuse and trauma, trying to "solve the problem" with advice or platitudes is the wrong approach. Instead of being simple and trite, encourage the student with God's unfailing love.
Psalm 34:18 says, "The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit."
Don't say anything if you're not sure what to say. It's OK to just listen. Sometimes silence speaks the loudest.
Proverbs 18:13 says, "If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame."
Utilize A Support Network
If the situation allows, don't go it alone. If you can bring in another trusted adult to listen to the student with you, do so. You utilize his or her experience and gifts, and you show the student that there are many who are ready to help.
Galatians 6:2 says, "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ."
Long Term Responses
Help Students Take A Long-Term View
Don't promise or expect an easy, one-and-done fix. Sexual abuse leaves scars that will take years to heal. The wiping away of all tears, the taking away of every reason for sorrow, crying, and pain, will not come until God lives visibly in our midst (Revelation 21:3-4). It's a long-term view of renewal.
Help Students Understand And Deal With Their Emotions
Sexual abuse produces emotions long after the trauma occurs. I have listed many of the emotions teenagers feel along with the a verse that expresses God's response to these emotions.
- Anger--"Be angry and do not sin." (Ephesians 4:26)
- Helplessness--"God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble." (Psalm 46:1)
- Shame--On the cross, Jesus exchanged our shame for His righteousness. "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Corinthians 5:21)
- Hopelessness--"For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope." (Jeremiah 29:11)
- Fear--"It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed." (Deuteronomy 31:8)
Play Your Role In Helping Students Move To Forgiveness
Forgiving a sexual abuser is extremely complex. It goes against every inclination we have. The crime is so heinous. Yet, as followers of Christ, we are called to forgive. As a meaningful, Christian adult in your student's life, you are in the position to lead him or her toward forgiveness. Here are some thoughts on what forgiveness is and what it is not:
- Forgiveness is not approving or diminishing sin.
- Forgiveness is not denying that a wrongdoing occurred.
- Forgiveness is not waiting for an apology. You can, and should, forgive without an apology.
- Forgiveness is not forgetting.
- Forgiveness is not ceasing to feel the pain.
- Forgiveness is not a one-time event.
- Forgiveness is not neglecting justice. Leave justice to the Perfect Judge.
- Forgiveness is not trusting.
- Forgiveness is not reconciliation. Repentance takes one. Forgiveness takes one. But reconciliation takes two.
- Forgiveness is simply saying, "I am not going to let what you did in the past control me. I am not going to be enslaved to anger, resentment and bitterness." Forgiveness is leaving the other person to Jesus.
Students experience pain, fear, and a sense of helplessness as a result of sexual abuse. Yet, Jesus' loving kindness redeems both sinners and sufferers. He rights all wrongs. Throughout Scripture, Christ demonstrates empathy and understanding for those who hurt. He stands willing and able to heal the brokenness caused by sexual abuse and sexual trauma. As an adult leader, you have an incredible opportunity to journey with your students toward healing in Christ. If you have questions or concerns, The Well Counseling Center can come alongside to help. Please don't hesitate to reach out to me.