The importance of family members, friends and partners for a survivor cannot be overstated.
People who have good support can heal more quickly. What’s most important is to be clear that the responsibility lies with the offender, and to stay away from myths about sexual abuse and assault.
- Acknowledge the experience by talking with the survivor. Offer them support and leave your views, questions and judgements to one side.
- Show them you are supporting them through your actions and behaviours. Tell them you are here for them and will support them through their emotional responses. Ask what they need and what they would like you to do next – it’s important, where possible, that the survivor has some sense of control and contributes to any decisions.
- Be a patient and effective listener. Allow the survivor to express their feelings. Do not pressure them into talking. It is a big shock when you have been sexually assaulted, and it may take some time for them to begin making sense of the experience. They may not be able to talk with you or give you all the details you want and if this is the case, try not to take it personally. Instead, encourage them to talk with someone else or to seek counselling.
- Ask gently about their own reactions. They are the expert on themselves at this time. However, you do need to understand that they may not want to talk.
- They may or may not wish to be held or touched. Ask and then be understanding and respectful of their wishes either way.
- Consider talking about such things as how they sleep, their feelings about being alone, their sense of safety and ability to engage in day-to-day activities.
- Avoid attempts to overprotect or distract them from the reality of the assault, as this could lead them to deny the effects of it, internalise their distress or become disconnected from family and friends. Endeavour to provide and maintain a safe, healthy environment by being honest, open and consistent. This will build a foundation for them to experience support and care.
- Let them know you care and are hurting with them; though don’t expect them to look after you. Try not to expose them to all of your emotional reactions and processes, but also do not completely hide your feelings and vulnerabilities from them. Get your needs for support met too. Do not let yourself become a silent victim of sexual violence.
- After being sexually abused or assaulted, many people feel totally exposed. One reaction to this is the need to keep total control over who knows and who doesn’t. Check with the survivor before you tell someone what has happened to them. If they are not OK for that person to know, find someone they are comfortable knowing, or talk with a counsellor
- What they want might seem to change from one minute to the next – follow them as best you can and try not to take offence if they seem ungrateful for your help. Most survivors are grateful as soon as they can be, but it might take a while if they are really struggling inside.
Taking care of your own emotions
To be supportive, it’s important that you also take care of your own emotions. It’s normal to experience some intense emotions if someone you care about has shared with you that they have been sexually abused or assaulted.
Common reactions include shock, anger, disbelief, sadness, blame, fear, guilt at not protecting them, and feeling helpless.
You may cope better by knowing some of what they are experiencing and by knowing that their reactions to the assault are normal, so have a read of some of the other resources around this site.
You are encouraged also to recognise your own needs and feelings and make sure you also look after yourself, so you are in a good place to support them too.
Talk to someone about your feelings – either someone they are comfortable knowing or a counsellor. Let them know that you are talking about it as this will keep them in touch that you too are having your own reactions to it.
In time you may be able to talk together about the impact the assault has had on your relationship/friendship/family.
Always remember though, that ultimately this trauma has happened to them and they are likely to be experiencing more of the same shock, disbelief, sadness and anger that you are.
You will be on a similar healing path, although at different places and in different phases most of the time.