For many children and adolescents, unwanted sexual experiences (USE) such as sexual assault and rape are alarmingly common. Even though such experiences are prevalent, many victims and survivors may refrain from communicating what has happened to them or they may disclose many years after what they have gone through.
Research on social support reveals that having someone to whom one can rely on and fully disclose can influence one’s state of health and overall coping – also referred to as the confiding-illness relation or the inhibition-disease link.
Such work has also highlighted the position and role of parents in relation to the well-being of children and adolescents. It has shown that parental support and communication with regards to discussions on sex, consent, harassment and rape can help in the prevention and recovery of unwanted sexual experiences. Also, it enhances the parent-child bond, in which children, adolescents and adults will feel safe to disclose to their parents.
This leads us to examine two important questions: what makes individuals suppress any personal information from their parents? And how can parents offer a safe space for their children to openly disclose any prior or future experiences without fear?
The Relationship between Self-Concealment and Self-Disclosure
Self-concealment is the “act of concealing or ‘avoiding telling others’ about personal information”, whereas self-disclosure is the “act of revealing personal information to others”.
The perplexing framework of disclosing unwanted sexual experiences encompasses various factors that can motivate or inhibit the likelihood for an individual to express or report what they have been through. These factors include interpretation of the assault, perception of social support, and culture and community norms.
With a lack of knowledge on what is sexual assault, many individuals may find themselves confused as to whether they can define their experience as rape, specifically if the perpetrator was an acquaintance. Therefore, this confusion can reduce the likelihood for victims to report or to disclose.
Also, individuals who perceive their social support as positive are more likely to disclose to their parents and friends. Positive perceptions of social support arise from the level of self-agency, which is the “belief that one has the ability to seek help and that seeking help will make a difference”. In other words, if one knows that revealing personal information to their parents may result in negative reactions such as blame and insult, one will refrain from disclosing any subsequent experiences.
On top of that, if the individual lives within a community that discourages or inhibits disclosure, then they are less likely to discuss with their parents or friends on such experiences. Also, sexual objectification within the media may be regarded as the norm, and inevitably reducing the perception of how serious the experience was.
How Defensive Communication Between Parents and Children Can Inhibit Self-Disclosure.
Many individuals experience difficulty and fear in communicating with their parents about sexuality and whether there have been previous experiences of sexual assault. The development of such a gap within the parent-child bond is due to what is referred to as ‘defensive communication climate’. Defensive communication occurs when individuals feel or anticipate threat.
For instance, teenagers may refrain from conversing with their parents due to them feeling that their parents are judging them. Also, if the parents tried to talk to them, the teenagers would spend most of the conversation defending themselves.
Defensive communication includes six main components:
- Evaluation. Evaluative communication occurs when the tone of voice and ways of speaking seem to be judgemental. During this form of communication, it is common to adopt behaviours such as blame and degradation.
- Control. This is common amongst parents and teens, in which the aim of the conversation is to enforce one’s own opinions and attitudes on the other and try to ‘change’ the other person.
- Strategy. This type of speech occurs when there are hidden motivations or hidden messages. In other words, defensiveness happens when one senses that the other person is hiding information. For instance, parents may communicate with their children in a way that makes the children feel guilty, and thus become coerced to do what the parents want.
- Neutrality. Individuals who communicate with their parents and sense a lack of concern from their parents will consequently refrain from disclosing any personal information in the future. In other words, parents who communicate with their children without warmth or care may convey rejection towards their children.
- Superiority. Superiority is the type of behaviour in which one declares to others that they are higher in position and power. Parents who adopt superiority will transfer unwillingness to solve problems and reduction in their child’s worthiness.
- Certainty. Parents who continuously perceive themselves as only ‘teachers’, rather than ‘partners’ or ‘co-workers’ can enhance defensive communication. This form of speech results in consistently trying to prove that they are correct and ‘win the argument’, rather than work to solve the problem.
How Can Parents Create a Supportive Communication Climate?
Parents can educate their children and offer a safe space for their children to ask questions and to disclose any previous stressful events by adopting six behaviours that are contradictory to the ones mentioned above. These are:
- Description. In contrast to evaluative speech where it is judgemental, descriptive speech aims to gain information to genuinely understand what their child is feeling or experiencing. Therefore, when children reveal any personal information, they sense that their parents are asking questions in order to understand their thoughts and emotions more rather than gathering information to judge their actions.
- Problem Orientation. This form of communication involves solving problems together. Parents who reveal a drive to collaborate with their children in setting goals, making decisions and evaluating progress can minimize defensive behaviour.
- Spontaneity. Spontaneity refers to behaviour that is perceived to be honest and without hidden incentives. It reduces defensive behaviour by communicating to the children that their parents are not deceiving them or ‘guilt-tripping’ them.
- Empathy. Parents who display understanding and acceptance towards their children’s feelings and emotions can enhance the parent-child bond, and increase the likelihood of future disclosures. Efforts on making the child not feel rejected can develop a trustful parent-child relationship.
- Equality. During discussions or conversations, parents can aim to send messages to their children that they can solve problems together and are open in receiving feedback. This enhances the trust and respect within the parent-child bond and can cause children to feel worthy.
- Provisionalism. Defensive communication can be reduced by avoiding behaviours such as debating and perceiving the children as always ‘wrong’. Instead, parents can adopt behaviours such as problem solving and examining issues without taking sides.
Overall, it is important for parents to diminish defensiveness in order to enhance communication with their children and teach them effectively on how to protect themselves from unwanted sexual experiences. Also, by offering a safe space to disclose distressful information helps improve the parent-child relationship and push towards finding solutions to any problem.
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