When someone you care about tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted or abused, it can be a lot to handle. A supportive reaction can make all the difference, but that doesn’t mean it comes easy. Encouraging words and phrases can avoid judgment and show support for the survivor. Below are some examples and information on how to give support in a validating and empathic manner.
Consider These Phrases
- “I’m sorry this happened.” Acknowledge that the experience has affected their life. Phrases like “This must be really tough for you” and “I’m so glad you are sharing this with me,” help to communicate empathy.
- “It’s not your fault.” Survivors may blame themselves, especially if they know the perpetrator personally. Remind the survivor, maybe even more than once, that they are not to blame.
- “I believe you.” It can be extremely difficult for survivors to come forward and share their story. They may feel ashamed, concerned that they won’t be believed, or worried they’ll be blamed. Leave any “why” questions or investigations to the experts—your job is to support this person. Be careful not to interpret calmness as a sign that the event did not occur—everyone responds differently. The best thing you can do is to believe them.
- “You are not alone.” Remind the survivor that you are there for them and willing to listen to their story. Remind them there are other people in their life who care and that there are service providers who will be able to support them as they recover from the experience.
- “Are you open to seeking medical attention?” The survivor might need medical attention, even if the event happened a while ago. You can support the survivor by offering to accompany them or find more information. It’s okay to ask directly, “Are you open to seeking medical care?”
- “You can trust me.” If a survivor opens up to you, it means they trust you. Reassure them that you can be trusted and will respect their privacy. Always ask the survivor before you share their story with others. If a minor discloses a situation of sexual abuse, you are required in most situations to report the crime. Let the minor know that you have to tell another adult, and ask them if they’d like to be involved.
- “This doesn’t change how I think of you.” Some survivors are concerned that sharing what happened will change the way other people see them, especially a partner. Reassure the survivor that surviving sexual violence doesn’t change the way you think or feel about them.
- “Are you in a safe place?” Most students will call family members once they are in a safe place. However, it is important to assess to make sure.
Continue Your Support
There’s no timetable when it comes to recovering from sexual violence. If someone trusted you enough to disclose the event to you, consider the following ways to show your continued support.
- Check in periodically. The event may have happened a long time ago, but that doesn’t mean the pain is gone. Check in with the survivor to remind them you still care about their well-being and believe their story.
- Avoid judgment. It can be difficult to watch a survivor struggle with the effects of sexual assault for an extended period of time. Avoid phrases that suggest they’re taking too long to recover such as, “You’ve been acting like this for a while now,” or “How much longer will you feel this way?”
- Remember that the healing process is fluid. Everyone has bad days. Don’t interpret flashbacks, bad days, or silent spells as “setbacks.” It’s all part of the process.
- Know your resources. You’re a strong supporter, but that doesn’t mean you’re equipped to manage someone else’s health. Seek outside support to help you help your loved one.
Common Emotions Often Experienced by Parents and Family
- Disbelief: Family and friends may react to the sexual assault of a loved one with many of the same feelings and physical reactions that the survivor experiences. Initially you may respond with shock and disbelief, especially if the survivor still looks the same or there are no visible signs of attack. You may even doubt that the assault happened. This is called “denial” and it happens after a traumatic experience.
- Fear: You may feel intense fear for your own or the survivor’s safety. You may try to protect the survivor from future assault by being extremely cautious and over protective. It may be hard to let the survivor out of your sight or to let her/him return to everyday activities. All this concern may be reassuring soon after the assault, but too much caution on your part can make it difficult for the survivor to feel capable and in control again.
- Anger: Often loved ones experience anger and even rage after a sexual assault. Your first reaction may be to seek revenge to find and kill the attacker. This is a normal feeling, but you will not be doing yourself or the survivor any good if you end up hurt or in jail and the survivor has to worry about you. Sometimes you may feel anger towards the survivor, especially if she/he did something you warned against, like hitchhiking or going to a party that ended in sexual assault. If you find yourself blaming the survivor for the assault, make sure that you have someone other than the survivor who can listen to your angry feelings. Remember, even if the survivor used poor judgment, it is the attacker who committed the crime and who is totally responsible for it.
- Depression: It is not unusual to feel hopeless and depressed. A sexual assault brings up feelings of powerlessness in victims and those who love them, and you may feel that your life is out of control. Your security and trust have been drastically violated. If depression lasts for more than a few weeks or becomes serious, get support for yourself.
- Guilt: Guilt is a common reaction when a loved one has been sexually assaulted. Those closest to the survivor may blame themselves. But whatever you did or did not do, you are not to blame if someone you love has been sexually assaulted. It is solely the fault of the attacker. Instead of wasting time blaming yourself for something you had absolutely no control over, concentrate on the positive things you can do now.