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JAMA Patient Page
September 15, 2015

Teens and Sexual Abuse

JAMA. 2015;314(11):1192. doi:10.1001/jama.2015.9938

The term teen sexual abuse has many meanings but always refers to any unwanted sexual contact of a teen by another person.

Sexual abuse can happen to any teen regardless of gender or sexual orientation. The abuser can be male or female. Different terms used to describe unwanted sexual contact of teens include

  • Sexual abuse: The abuser is a parent, stepparent, sibling, or other relative. The abuse usually happens multiple times. It is often difficult for the teen to disclose the abuse because it involves a family member.

  • Date/acquaintance rape: The abuser is the teen’s current or past dating partner, friend, or classmate.

  • Sexual assault: The abuser is usually a stranger.

Why Teens Don’t Tell

It is very common for teens to be sexually abused, and most will not tell anyone about the abuse. The biggest reason is fear. Abusers convince teens that no one will believe their story. Teens often feel responsible for the abuse because the abuser tells them it was their fault. Abusers may use threats to scare teens into not telling anyone about the abuse. If the abuser is a family member, the teen may be scared of getting the family member in trouble.

What to Expect After a Teen Is Sexually Abused

Being a teen is already a stressful and confusing time. Experiencing sexual abuse makes life even more confusing. Teens often act as if the abuse did not happen. The pain is too much at times so they work hard to avoid the pain. You may notice in your teen feelings of sadness, nervousness, guilt, and fear; changes in behavior such as withdrawing from friends and family, a drop in school performance, or trouble sleeping; avoiding reminders of the abuse such as people, places, or things; or engaging in unhealthy behaviors such as running away, substance abuse, self-mutilation, or suicidal ideation.

What Sexually Abused Teens Should Know

If you are a teen who has been sexually abused, remember that it is not your fault. Tell your parents what happened. If this is not a safe option, talk to a friend or a trusted adult such as a teacher, coach, doctor, or another family member. Your safety is important, and adults can take action to protect you by calling the police or child protective services. Seek medical attention. Ask for support to help you heal from the abuse.

How Parents Can Help Their Teen After Sexual Abuse

Teens often disclose abuse to a friend, teacher, or other family member first. Remember that telling someone about the abuse is a big decision. It is difficult and embarrassing for a teen to report sexual abuse. A parent not believing a teen when the teen reports sexual abuse can leave the teen feeling isolated or scared. The teen may even blame himself or herself for the abuse.

As a parent, the best thing you can do is believe your son or daughter. Teens will pay attention to your reaction to their story. Remain calm and avoid placing blame on the teen. You will need to provide love, stability, and support during this period. Protect your teenager. Contact the police and get medical attention. Let your teen know that you will listen if he or she wants to talk. Seek counseling to help him or her heal from the sexual abuse.

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For More Information

To find this and previous JAMA Patient Pages, go to the Patient Page link on JAMA’s website at www.jama.com. Many are available in English and Spanish.

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Article Information
The JAMA Patient Page is a public service of JAMA. The information and recommendations appearing on this page are appropriate in most instances, but they are not a substitute for medical diagnosis. For specific information concerning your personal medical condition, JAMA suggests that you consult your physician. This page may be photocopied noncommercially by physicians and other health care professionals to share with patients. To purchase bulk reprints, call 312/464-0776.

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: All authors have completed and submitted the ICMJE Form for Disclosure of Potential Conflicts of Interest and none were reported.

Source: National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Topic: Adolescent Health

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