Sexual Abuse in Teenagers: What Parents Need to Know

Overview

In order to protect teenagers from sexual abuse, it is important that both parents and teens understand what constitutes sexual abuse.  While it is broadly defined as abuse that can be considered sexual in nature, some acts, like date rape or sexual advances from an adult are generally considered by everyone to be forms of sexual abuse.  But things like voyeurism, exposure to pornography, and exhibitionism that do not involve direct physical contact between a teen and a perpetrator are also forms of sexual abuse and can be as devastating s physical abuse to the victim.

Sexual Abuse in Teenagers: What Parents Need to Know

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Although most teenage sexual abuse is committed by an adult in a position of power, it is also important for teenagers to understand that the perpetrator doesn’t have to be an adult for sexual activity to be considered abuse.    Teenagers need to be aware that being drunk, drugged, afraid, or otherwise incapacitated does not make sex consensual.  Even if they don’t fight back, unwanted sexual advances and forced sexual activity is sexual abuse and is illegal.

Statistics

Amongst teenagers, girls are more likely to be the victims of sexual abuse and 1 in 4 girls will have been sexually abused by the age of 18.   The majority of teenage sexual abuse victims know their abuser.  The most common type of abuser is a family member or someone who has close ties to the family.  More than 50% of females who are raped in theU.S.are raped before they turn 18 and teenagers account for more than half of all reported sexual abuse in this country.   Abuse victims have an increased risk of being abused again and teens between 16 and 19 are more than 3 times as likely as anyone else to be the victim of sexual abuse.  The majority of sexual abuse against teenagers happens in their own homes.  Teenagers also make up almost a quarter of sexual offenders.

While the report rate for sexual abuse across all ages is about 50%, this statistic drops to 31% amongst teenagers.  Due in part to anxiety about the social stigma of being a victim and fears of retribution, many teens choose not to report their abuse in an attempt to forget it happened at all.  Other factors like mediocre arrest rates, conviction rates below 20%, and short prison sentences may also deter victims from stepping forward.

The Signs

It is very common for victims of teen sexual abuse to have changes in behavior and to exhibit the same symptoms as a teen who has survived a traumatic event.  Common behaviors seen in victims of teen sexual abuse include:

  • Increased anxiety and panic attacks
  • Eating disorders
  • Depression
  • Displaced anger
  • Nightmares and difficulties sleeping
  • Problems in school including acting out in class and rapidly falling grades
  • Withdrawing from friends, family, and activities
  • Self destructive behavior like cutting, using drugs, or promiscuity
  • Poor hygiene or excessive bathing
  • Running away
  • Suicidal thoughts, talking about suicide, and attempting suicide
  • Discussing sexual knowledge or language that is not age appropriate

Preventing Sexual Abuse

The best way to help prevent your teen from becoming the victim of sexual abuse is to arm them with information.  Understanding what constitutes sexual abuse can help teens identify and avoid dangerous situations.  Discussing the topic openly lets your teen know that if something does happen, they can come to you for understanding and support.  Help your teen practice saying no and empower them to be the boss of their own body.  Just as with smaller children, don’t force teenagers to hug or have physical contact with family members or any other person if it makes them uncomfortable.  Give them the absolute right to say no if they do not want someone touching them and you will empower them to say no when it matters most.

How to Get Help

Sexual abuse is traumatic and can cause serious issues with sexuality, self esteem, trust, loyalty, and the development of healthy relationships.  Teens who have been victims of sexual abuse may be struggling with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, PTSD, cutting, and other self harm or self destructive behaviors.  The first step is to find the right practitioner who can provide the treatment and support needed to overcome the effects of the abuse.  Together with this professional, parents and friends can create a caring, understanding support system to aid in recovery.

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