What do you do when someone tells you she has been sexually abused?
If someone trusts you enough to tell you about an incident of sexual abuse, you are in an important position to help that person recover.
Many Survivors report that a supportive reaction from the person to whom they first disclose the story of their abuse can be a vital element in their healing process, regardless of the eventual outcome of the disclosure. A negative or insensitive reaction can compound the damage of the victimization and have an adverse effect on the healing process.
The following suggestions can help you provide positive support. Keep in mind that sometimes it’s important just to listen.
- Believe the survivor. Even if she doubts herself.
- Validate her feelings. Acknowledge any anxiety, fear or anger you feel from her.
- Let her know that these are normal and it is good that she is talking about them.
- Give her information like – ‘You are not the only one’ but without minimizing her feelings and experience.
- Tell her she’s not to blame.
- Reassure her that she’s not ‘tarnished’ by the abuse.
- Give her your attention.
- Just ‘be there’ – tell her you’ll be there for her. Let her talk and vent her feelings.
- Allow her the time and space to make decisions and support them even if you don’t agree with them.
- Deal with your own feelings of shock, anger and frustrations. Do not transmit them to her.
- Help her get referral numbers and information if she wants.
- Continue to do fun things as before.
- Don’t give advice – must do or must not do.
- Don’t tell her what you would have done.
- Don’t tell her it’ll all be okay.
- Don’t tell her how she could have avoided it.
- Tell her she’s not to blame.
- Don’t try to excuse the abuser.
- Don’t blame her or accuse her of lying.
- Don’t express your feelings about the abuser.
- Don’t ask her to forgive and forget.
- Don’t rush the disclosure. Let her explain what happened at her own pace and terms.
- Don’t ask for abuse details or ask lots of questions.
- Don’t avoid or change the topic.
- Don’t tell anyone else about it unless you have her permission.
What to say
- “Thanks for telling me.”
- “I’m glad you survived.”
- “I’m sorry that it happened.”
- “You must have felt helpless.”
- “I still love you.”
- “You did the best you could.”
- “It must have been tough for you.”
- “I’m always here if you want to talk.”
- “Can I do anything for you?”
- “You acted in the best manner you could.”
- “You are not responsible for it.”
- “Feelings aren’t rational, they just ‘are’.”
- “It was not your fault.”
- It is important to examine your own attitude and feelings about it.
- Recognise and process your own emotions(anger, guilt, powerlessness, fear).
- Recognise your own limitations in dealing with the abuse.
- Listening to someone’s disclosure can be difficult. Finding ways to take care of yourself can provide the relationship with strength and stability.
- Get support for yourself. You deserve it.
- It is normal to feel the following or more: helplessness, guilt, shame, loss of intimacy, loss of routine, frustration, need for retaliation, over protection, anger. Be easy on yourself.
- The disclosure will bring the two of you closer.