How to Help a Friend
How you respond to a disclosure of sexual assault/abuse, as well as, how you treat the survivor will significantly affect her/his recovery process. Responding with doubt, disbelief, dismay or disapproval can result in the survivor feeling further traumatized, and may slow or halt her/his healing process. The survivor may appear to be in a state of shock, be confused, be bewildered or appear full of self-doubt. S/he may appear to be overwhelmed, burst into tears, become restless or extremely angry. Some survivors may suppress their feelings of anxiety and appear calm. However, no matter how the survivor may appear during the disclosure, it is your responsibility to take her/him seriously.
In your role as the initial contact person, you must take care not to add to the survivor’s sense of stress, anxiety, guilt or fear. You must be willing to help the survivor cope with the situation and her/his feelings about it. By exhibiting a consistent, warm, empathic, non-judgmental attitude, you will help minimize the trauma experienced by the survivor.
You can help the survivor best if you remember the following things:
- Remain calm and do not overreact.
- Believe the survivor.
- If you are feeling uncomfortable discussing the details of the abuse, say so. Silence, while appropriate in a number of instances and if used properly, can be misunderstood as not caring or ignoring the survivor’s pain. Tell the survivor that you are interested in hearing how s/he are feeling about the abuse/assault. Also, be sensitive to when the survivor may not want to talk about it.
“I am feeling a little uncomfortable hearing the specifics about your abuse. If it would be helpful, I would be more than willing to talk about the day-to-day coping you must do, and the feelings associated with the abuse.
“If you are not ready to talk about the abuse, that is perfectly okay with me. I do not need to know any of the details in order to provide you with support and to help you cope more effectively.”
- Survivors of sexual violence are never to blame for assault/abuse. All literature regarding sexual violence tells us that the perpetrator is 100% to blame, as does the Criminal Code. Survivors who disclose may have a lot of self-doubt, guilt and blame regarding the sexual assault/abuse. Tell them it was not their fault; no one deserves or asks to be sexually assaulted
“It doesn’t matter what you wore or where you were. No one deserves to be sexually assaulted.”
- Reinforce the positive coping mechanisms the survivor has. Draw out and focus on the survivor’s strengths and acknowledge the positive.
“Look how long you have been living with this (mention time element). Despite what happened, you have still managed to get up and go to work, look after your kids…”
“What are some of the things you do in your life to help you to handle the overwhelming feelings?”
“Look at all of the things you have done (name them). You really are a strong person.”
- Commend the survivor for breaking her/his silence and sharing her/his experience with you. This is particularly important if the abuser threatened to harm her/him, or someone else, if the survivor told anyone.
“It took a lot of courage to share that with me and I thank you for trusting me enough to tell me.”
- Support the survivor by being alert to finding out her/his needs.
“What do you feel would be most helpful to you at this time?”
- Recognize that the emotional injury is extensive and will continue for a long time. This is very important, especially in our society of ‘quick fix’ and ‘instant gratification’, where most of us expect things to get better very quickly.
“I wish I could promise you that this will end soon. I can’t do that. Healing is a process that takes a long time. However, you have taken a very difficult step by telling me what happened.”
- Respect and understand where the survivor is emotionally.
- Be aware of and understand the trauma effects involved with sexual violence (or any traumatic experience for that matter). It is important for you to know and understand the effects survivors may be experiencing.
- Many survivors experience feelings that they are going ‘crazy’ or ‘nuts’ because of the impact of the sexual abuse/assault. Reassure the survivor that this is a common phenomenon among survivors.
“Sometimes it is easier to think about ourselves as being crazy or nuts in order to make sense of the reality of what we have lived through.”
- Sexual violence leaves survivors feeling isolated and feeling that they are the only ones who have experienced this. Tell the survivor that, unfortunately, sexual violence is more common than we would like.
- Tell the survivor to do what s/he can do to make her/his work/home environment a safe place. Ask the survivor about establishing a safety plan and ways to deal with incidents if they do occur. Ask she/he if they can write the safety plan down on paper; it is amazing how powerful this can be.
“If you find yourself feeling really overwhelmed, what are some things you can do to help you feel safe and calm again?”
“If that doesn’t work, what else can you try?”
- Remember to look after yourself as you witness other people’s pain.
- Offer realistic hope, not promises you can’t follow through on.
“The healing process takes a long time and can be very difficult. But, it is possible that, in time, you may reach a point where you will begin to feel happy again.”
- Do not make promises that you cannot follow through on.
- Never, ever criticize the survivor for the choices she/he made.
- Do not add to the survivor’s stress levels.
- Do not force the survivor to talk about the assault/abuse. Be patient and let the survivor guide you as to how much her/his wish to share.
- Never pressure the survivor to take action or make any decisions she/he is not ready to make.
- Do not take over. The survivor needs to experience a sense of control and competence as soon as possible. As much as possible, give the survivor every opportunity to make choices for herself/himself.
- Never blame the survivor for what happened to her/him. The perpetrator is 100% at fault.
- Do not minimize or dismiss what happened to the survivor as ‘no big deal’.
“What happened to you wasn’t really so bad. After all, you don’t have any bruises or cuts and you’re still alive.”
“What are you so upset about? All that person did was try to kiss you. You’re overreacting.”
“If the perpetrator did not actually penetrate you it is not so bad.”
- Do not convey to the survivor that she/he have been permanently damaged.
- Do not expect an immediate or complete recovery. Be as patient as you can be.