Behavioral and Emotional Wellness

If Your Child Is Raped

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Rape — forced, unwanted sexual intercourse — can happen to males and females of any age. Rape is a sexual assault. It's not about love or sex. It's about power. A rapist uses actual or threatened force or violence to exert control over another person. Some rapists use drugs or alcohol to take away a person's ability to fight back.

Rape is a crime, no matter if the person committing the rape is a stranger, acquaintance, date, friend, or family member.

Someone who has been raped needs medical care, comfort, understanding, and support. Here's what to do if your daughter or son is the victim of a rape.

How to Tell

If your child is sexually assaulted, he or she might choose not to tell you. Preteens and teenagers often confide only in friends about deeply personal issues — and, unfortunately, something as serious as rape is no exception.

Also, laws in some states don't require parents to be notified if a teenager under age 18 has called a rape crisis center or visited a clinic for evaluation.

But even if your child doesn't confide in you, some signs can indicate that he or she is struggling emotionally — whether due to rape or something else — and needs your help. For example, your child might:

  • act unusually irritable, moody, or cranky
  • seem angry, frightened, or confused
  • feel depressed, anxious, or nervous, especially about being alone
  • withdraw from friends and family
  • have trouble sleeping
  • have changes in appetite
  • be unable to concentrate in school or to participate in everyday activities

These may be signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or what's sometimes called rape trauma syndrome. If you see symptoms like these, reach out and let your daughter or son know that you're always available to listen, no matter what.

If your child still won't open up and you continue to suspect some kind of trauma or distress, seek a therapist's help to get to the root of the problem.

Seeking Medical Care

If you find out that your child is the victim of rape, it's important to seek help as soon as possible. Rapes fall into two categories: Acute rapes (happening within the last 72 hours) and non-acute rapes (happening more than 72 hours ago).

Acute rapes. If the rape happened within the last 72 hours (3 days), take your child to an emergency room immediately, call the police, or call a rape crisis hotline. Hotlines can offer guidance on what to do, including finding a hospital nearby that has a program set up specially to care for rape victims. The national sexual assault hotline at (800) 656-HOPE is one you can call. (You also can call the police to report the assault before going to the hospital, but know that doctors and nurses usually report sexual assaults to the authorities.)

At the hospital, your child will be checked for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) (also called sexually transmitted infections, or STIs) and internal injuries. Many medical facilities have people who are trained to care for someone whose been raped, such as a forensic nurse examiner (FNE) or sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE).

If possible, seek medical care before your child has changed clothes, showered, or douched. It can be hard not to clean up, of course — it's a natural human instinct to wash away all traces of a sexual assault. But being examined right away is the best way to ensure timely medical treatment and help with the collection of evidence.

In most states or cities, the window of time for gathering medical evidence for an acute rape is usually within the first 72 hours. But some jurisdictions have a longer threshold of time, such as up to 96 hours or even 2 weeks.

After getting appropriate medical care, notify the police if you haven't already. The police will take a report and document the incident, as well as collect any evidence.

Non-acute rapes. If the rape happened more than 72 hours (3 days) ago, call the police. You can also call a rape crisis hotline for counseling on next steps, including talking to the police and getting a medical evaluation. The police will want to take a report and document the incident, as well as collect any evidence. After that, your child should get a medical evaluation.

What to Expect During the Exam

Before the exam, a trained doctor, nurse, counselor, or social worker will listen to your daughter or son talk about what happened. This conversation will direct medical treatment and may help with the investigation of the crime. Talking to a trained listener also helps your child release some of the emotions associated with the experience, and can help her or him begin feeling calm and safe again.

The medical professional also might talk about the exam, what it involves, and ask for parental consent. Each state or jurisdiction may have different requirements, but most medical exams (for both acute and non-acute rape cases) are likely to include these steps:

If your child has gone through puberty:

  • A medical professional may test for STDs/STIs, including HIV/AIDS. These tests may involve taking blood or saliva samples. Although the thought of having an STD after a rape is extremely scary, the quicker one is diagnosed, the more effectively it can be treated. Doctors can start your child on immediate treatment courses for STDs, including HIV/AIDS, which can help protect against developing these diseases.
  • If your daughter is raped, a medical professional may treat her for unwanted pregnancy, if she chooses.
  • A medical professional will examine your child internally and externally to check for any injury that might have been caused by the rape.
  • A medical professional or trained technician may look for and take samples of the rapist's hair, skin, nails, or bodily fluids from your child's clothes or body.
  • If you think your child has been given a rape drug, a doctor or technician can test for this, too.
  • Pictures of any injuries may be taken for documentation purposes.

If your child has not yet gone through puberty:

  • A medical professional may test for STDs, including HIV/AIDS. These tests may involve taking blood or saliva samples. Although the thought of having an STD after a rape is extremely scary, the quicker one is diagnosed, the more effectively it can be treated.
  • A medical professional will perform an external examination on your child to check for any injury that might have been caused by the rape.
  • A medical professional or trained technician may look for and take samples of the rapist's hair, skin, nails, or bodily fluids from your child's clothes or body.
  • If you think your child has been given a rape drug, a doctor or technician can test for this, too.
  • Pictures of any injuries may be taken for documentation purposes.

Even if your child doesn't get examined right away, it doesn't mean that he or she can't get a checkup later. A person can still go to a doctor or local clinic to get checked out for STDs, pregnancy, or injuries any time after being raped. In some cases, doctors can even gather evidence several days after a rape has occurred.

Exams Important for Prosecuting a Crime

Seeking medical attention is recommended not just to ensure your child's health and safety, but also to provide documentation for any future criminal investigations. Medical centers and hospitals often report a sexual assault (or suspected sexual assault) to the police.

If a criminal case is pursued by authorities, medical tests may help provide the evidence needed to prosecute the rapist. Keep in mind, the statutes of limitations on rape give a person only a certain amount of time to pursue legal action, so be sure you know how long you have to report the rape. A local rape crisis center can advise you of the laws in your state.

Addressing Emotional Health

Those who have been raped sometimes avoid seeking help because they're afraid that talking about it will bring back memories or feelings that are too painful. But this can actually do more harm than good.

Seeking help and emotional support from a trained professional is the best way to ensure long-term healing. Working through the pain sooner rather than later can help reduce symptoms like nightmares and flashbacks. It also can help someone avoid potentially harmful behaviors and emotions, like major depression or self-injury.

How rape survivors work through feelings can vary. Ask your child what sort of counseling is preferable: Some people feel most comfortable talking one-on-one with a therapist. Others find that joining a support group where they can be with other survivors helps them to feel better, get their power back, and move on with their lives. In a support group, they can get help and might help others heal by sharing their own experiences and ideas.

Reviewed by: Allan R. De Jong, MD
Date reviewed: April 2012



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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses and treatment, consult your doctor.

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