Teen Girls Are Being Sexually Assaulted In Record Numbers. Here’s What We Can Do About It.

According to new survey data, 18% of teen girls in 2021 reported experiencing sexual violence in the preceding year.
According to new survey data, 18% of teen girls in 2021 reported experiencing sexual violence in the preceding year.

According to new survey data, 18% of teen girls in 2021 reported experiencing sexual violence in the preceding year.

Parents — particularly those of us raising daughters — would like to think that the world is a less dangerous place for girls today than it was when we were young.

By some measures, it is. The teen birth rate, declining since 1991, has reached record lows. A survey report released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which included data from 17,232 questionnaires completed by high school students in 2021 as well as similar data collected over the preceding 10 years, shows that fewer students are engaging in risky sexual activity. The percentage of teens drinking alcohol is also steadily decreasing.

But other statistics from the report are alarming. In 2021, 14% of female student respondents reported being forced to engage in sex. This rate increased, going up from 12% in 2011. Meanwhile, 18% of females reported experiencing sexual violence in the preceding year, also up from a 2011 rate of 15%.

A clear trend throughout the report is the disproportionate suffering of girls and teens who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or queer. (The 2021 survey did not provide a way for transgender students to identify themselves, but the report’s authors note in the introduction that future iterations of the survey will.) These students were all more likely to experience violence, experience persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, consider suicide, drink alcohol and use other substances.

Kathleen Ethier, the director of the Division of Adolescent and School Health at the CDC and one of the researchers who worked on the survey, told HuffPost, “When I looked at this data for the first time, I was just overwhelmed with how
much more impacted girls and LGBQ youth are than their peers — consistently across all of the substance use measures, all of the violence measures, all of the mental health and suicidal behavior measures.”

It’s enough to bring parents to despair. But rather than feeling paralyzed by the numbers, we can take action to increase the likelihood that our daughters and LGBTQ-plus children will come to us for support if they experience sexual violence.

Sustain Open Channels Of Communication

You can’t always prevent someone from hurting your child, but there are measures you can take to raise the odds that they will come to you for help.

Dr. Emily Haas, a psychiatrist at Silver Hill Hospital in Connecticut, told HuffPost that the environment kids grow up in will dictate how open they are to sharing these traumatic experiences. “An environment where nobody ever talks about feelings or where, when feelings come up, they’re shut down” will dissuade them from confiding in you, as will any history of disbelief, she said.

“Has something bad happened to them in the past and nobody believed them?” Haas asked.

It’s never too early to talk with children about consent and bodily autonomy. It’s also important to begin early with conversations about mental health.

For small children, this can start with something as simple as helping them notice when they feel happy or sad.

“Being able to express those emotions, label them and then talk to somebody about them, whether they’re good or negative, is an important thing to start with your kids as early as you can,” said Ethier.

“Then when you get to adolescence, you’re not starting from scratch and they have the language to talk to you,” she continued.

The benefits of family connectedness, or how close teens feel to their families, extend 20 and 30 years into the future, said Ethier. Other ways to support this connection include staying involved in their lives, knowing where they are and who they are with at all times, and maintaining relationships with the parents of their friends.

“Working to create that kind of engagement and involvement and closeness is really an extremely protective approach,” said Ethier.

Model Caring For Your Own Mental Health

“The more parents can help their own mental health and make sure that they’re demonstrating and modeling to their kids how to safely talk about feelings, how to safely express feelings, the more the communication is going to be easier,” said Haas.

You don’t want to burden your kids with your problems, but you can identify your feelings and note when you’re struggling. You want to create a safe space to talk about these topics.

Caring for your own mental health, with therapy or whatever other form that takes, is also important if your child has experienced trauma.

“A big thing parents can do for kids is make sure that their mental health is being taken care of too. If parents are not emotionally stable, it’s going to be a lot harder for the kids to cope with that and have a support at home to go to,” said Haas.

Be Alert To Signs Of Trauma

“Sometimes when a kid is sad or anxious or not doing well in school, we think, well, they just have depression, they have anxiety or they have ADHD [attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder]. But ... those are symptoms of trauma as well,” said Haas.

“The most common reaction to experiencing trauma of any kind is to develop symptoms of depression,” she said. This is one interpretation of why so many teen girls are experiencing persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.

Any change in your child’s usual behavior is also cause for concern. This might be reflected in their school performance, mood, and eating or sleeping habits.

On the more severe end of the spectrum, teens may exhibit obsessive-compulsive behaviors, disordered eating, substance abuse or self-harm, such as cutting. These are ways that some kids may try to regain a sense of control when a traumatic event makes them feel as though they have none.

It’s important to get teens help for their immediate suffering and also to prevent long-term consequences of trauma. “We know absolutely, from years of research, that experience of trauma — particularly violence and sexual violence — has long-term, potentially lifelong implications for the mental health of anyone who experiences it,” said Ethier.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety disorder, eating disorders and substance use disorders are all possible long-term consequences.

“Beyond mental health diagnoses and symptoms,” a person may also develop attachment issues, said Hass. “The ability to have safe, trusting relationships later in life can dramatically be impacted by an assault in childhood,” she said.

Some young people experience more than one trauma, compounding the effects.

“When there are multiple forms of violence that a young person experiences, it exacerbates the mental health implications,” said Ethier.

In addition to sexual violence, girls may experience physical violence at home or at school. In the CDC survey, 17% of female students said they had been bullied at school in the preceding year, and 10% reported not going to school because of safety concerns.

While the report can’t prove a causal relationship between the violence teens experience and their mental health issues, “it is impossible to take away from this that it’s not at least partially to blame for what we’re seeing in terms of mental health and suicidal thoughts,” said Ethier.

The data shows that teen girls struggle with mental health in high numbers, and those are going up. Fifty-seven percent of girls (compared with 29% of boys) reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness — an indicator of depression. Thirty percent said they considered suicide, 24% made a plan for suicide and 13% attempted suicide. Each of those numbers rose over the preceding decade.

Believe Your Child

It’s critical that you take your child seriously when they come to you with a trauma like sexual assault. You need to put aside your own shock or disbelief and listen receptively to what they have to say.

“An empathetic, concerned response and a loving, supportive response is the most helpful thing you can do,” said Haas.

Often, behavior changes are easier to see in hindsight, and we need to recognize that it’s possible we didn’t catch a child’s signs of struggle, she noted.

“In my experience, I have seen so many people who come to me as adults that were not believed as children,” said Haas. This compounds their trauma, discouraging them from telling anyone else.

Even the slightest questioning of their account can be “invalidating for the person and make them reluctant to receive treatment,” said Haas.

Reach Out For Professional Help

“Good mental health care after an assault can most certainly impact the development of symptoms later,” said Haas.

When seeking help for your child, don’t overlook that fact that you too may need support at this time.

“Sometimes it’s really hard for the parents to grieve the fact that this happened to their children, or they have feelings of taking responsibility for it happening because they weren’t there, they didn’t protect them,” Haas said.

If parents are struggling with these feelings, or perhaps showing signs of depression, “it’s going to make it harder for the kids to cope because they feel like, ‘Oh, no, I can’t talk about it because Mom is really depressed and I’m going to make her more upset,’” Haas said.

Again, your own mental health, and the way your kids see you caring for yourself, can have a huge impact on your children.

Advocate For LGBTQ-Inclusive School Policies And Teaching Consent

Ethier said there are two lenses through which we can view the problem: Do we want to prevent girls from being raped, or prevent boys and men from perpetrating sexual violence? Who are we putting the onus on, and is it fair?

“One of the things to remember about all of the violence measures that we include in this report is that they are the experience of violence. What that means is that the behavior is being perpetrated by others,” said Ethier.

“We have to think about this data in terms of how to impact aggression, or how to impact perpetration of violence. I am very concerned that we not turn this report into a way to say, ‘What’s wrong with girls?’” she added.

School-based education programs, said Ethier, should emphasize the meaning and importance of consent.

“Adolescence is a time when young people are having their first romantic relationships. We know that, and so we need to ensure that those relationships happen in a healthy way,” she said.

“We have to have some real conversations with young people about what consent is and what it looks like, and how that how that plays out,” she continued, noting that girls experience violence across a range of behaviors that include but are not limited to rape.

A CDC program called What Works in Schools has shown to be successful, according to Ethier. Initiatives such as this one, which promote inclusivity for LGBTQ youth, benefit the mental health of all students, she said.

“When schools are less toxic for the most vulnerable youth, then we see improvement in all of the students who go to those schools,” said Ethier.

The actions that schools can take don’t cost a lot of money. They include professional development for teachers to help them manage mental health issues in the classroom, connecting students with programs and mentors in the community, making schools inclusive for LGBTQ students, and providing health education that teaches consent.

Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.

For substance use disorder or mental health issues, call 800-662-HELP (4357) in the U.S. for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

Dial 988 or call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also get support via text by visiting suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.