It can be overwhelming to hear that someone you care for has been sexually assaulted or abused. This person needs your support and friendship now more than ever, and you want to be helpful – but what do you say?
It’s important to first understand that every survivor is different, and the effects of sexual assault can vary with each individual. Some survivors experience physical reactions, such as changes in sleep or appetite. Some may appear “jumpy” or on edge. Many exhibit emotional reactions, such as crying or expressing anger, while others may look more stoic.
Your loved one may experience some combination of these effects, or none of them. There’s no “wrong” reaction to being violated. Whether the survivor in your life is a friend, family member, or partner, there are some things you can do to try to provide comfort and support.
Things to Say to Support a Sexual Assault Survivor:
- “I believe you.” Survivors often do not tell people what happened in valid fear that they won’t be believed. Even if parts of the story sound unclear or strange to you, do not question your loved one. That’s the job of the police, if the survivor chooses to contact them. Your job is to be supportive and understanding.
- “It’s not your fault.” Nobody ever deserves to be treated in this way, and it’s never the survivor’s fault. Don’t come to the perpetrator’s defense, or attempt to understand why they did this, even if you personally know them.
- “Thank you for telling me.” Whether the assault happened recently or years ago, it takes a lot of courage for the survivor to tell their story. You can provide safety by acknowledging their trust in you.
- “I love you. I care about you.” Survivors often worry that their loved ones will see them differently. They frequently blame themselves for the assault, and feel unworthy of others’ care. Reassure them that they are loved and valued.
- Nothing. Sometimes, simply being present and providing a listening ear is more helpful than trying to find the right thing to say.
Things to Do to Support a Sexual Assault Survivor:
- Have patience with the healing process. It can be difficult to watch your friend struggle with the effects of sexual assault. You don’t want this person to hurt anymore, so it may seem tempting to push them towards recovery. However, your impatience could make the survivor feel ashamed, or worry that they’re bothering you. Be helpful by reminding your friend (and yourself) that healing is a long process, and doesn’t happen in a straight line.
- Meet your loved one where they are. If they’re feeling upset and want to talk, be available to them. If they’re tired of talking and want to do something else, respect that as well. Continue to invite your friend out for fun activities as you normally would, and express understanding if they turn you down.
- Ask how to be comforting. Some survivors may really want physical touch in the form of hugs or hand-holding, but others may feel uncomfortable with it. When in doubt, ask your loved one what would be helpful to them.
- Avoid saying that you understand exactly how the survivor feels. It is wonderful to have empathy and compassion for your loved one, but that doesn’t mean you know exactly how they think and feel. Even if you are a survivor yourself, every situation and experience is different, and so are people’s responses to those experiences. Let the survivor tell you how they feel.
- Know your own limits. You might be a really supportive friend, but you’re not that person’s therapist, and it’s not fair to them (or to you) to put pressure on yourself to fix their problems. Be realistic about how much help you can provide. If you believe your loved one may need professional help, gently suggest the idea, offer to help find someone, and then allow your friend to make their own decision about it.
- Take care of yourself. Hearing that something awful has happened to someone you love can bring about many feelings. You may find yourself feeling angry, sad, guilty, or helpless. If you are a survivor yourself, you may also be feeling triggered. All of these reactions are normal, but still deserve to be processed. Seek frequent support from a therapist or other loved ones. Remember that in order to effectively care for someone else, you must first care for yourself.
Survivors of sexual assault and their loved ones are welcome to contact Austin Family Counseling in order to be connected with a knowledgeable and caring therapist. For safety-planning, information, and support, the RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) website and hotline (1-800-656-4673) are also helpful resources.