When you discover someone you love and care about has been sexually abused, your response - and ongoing responses - to that person are important to their recovery.
The right answers and remarks don't come easy, Encouraging words and phrases that avoid judgement and encourage sharing and connection will go a long way. The right disposition in response to the traumatic event your loved one has experienced will be felt before it's heard.
What Should I Say?
‘I’m so sorry this happened to you.’ Acknowledge what your loved one has been through. To express empathy, you can say things like ‘This must be so hard for you’ or 'I’m so glad you’re sharing this with me'
‘None of this was your fault.’ Survivors will often blame themselves for the abuse – especially if they know the perpetrator. Keep reinforcing the fact that they are not to blame in any way for what happened
‘I believe you.’ Fear and shame will often cause a survivor not to share their story with anyone. So will the strong fear that they won't be believed. They must absolutely know that you believe them. This is one of the very best things you can do
‘You aren’t alone in this – I’m with you.’ Proactively be that person who will stand by and assist your loved one. This will give them more strength than you know
‘Do you think you should speak to somebody who knows how to help you?’ This is a great time to gently help your loved one contact specialists trained to help the survivor recover. You can contact us about this
‘You can trust me.’ If your loved one talks to you about the abuse they experienced, it means they trust you. Be loyal to that and reinforce this trust. Never share their story without their explicit consent
‘This doesn’t in any way change how I think about you.’ There’s a tremendous amount of guilt wrapped up in the trauma of abuse for the survivor. Hearing these words from you can make all the difference in the world
What Should I Do?
Avoid making judgements. It can be really hard watching your loved one go through the effects of sexual abuse. Avoid any behaviour or talk that makes your person think ‘He/she thinks I should be over this by now'
Keep checking in. Even if the abuse happened some time ago, the pain will still be there. Let your loved one know you are there for them whenever they want to talk about what happened to them
Help them maintain their independence. A survivor of sexual abuse might feel like a large amount of their physical and emotional selves have been violated or stripped away.
The small ways that you can help them rebuild their independence in the immediate aftermath can make a huge difference. Follow their lead and help support them in making the decisions that are right for them - even if it's just about what to have for dinner or whether to stay home all weekend or take a walk with the dog
Respect and validate their reactions - even if you don't think those reactions are 'normal'. How you think someone should act after they've been abused and how they actually do act, can be completely different things.
How Do I Look After Myself While I Support My Loved One?
Supporting someone who has suffered through sexual abuse can be mentally and emotionally challenging. Even exhausting. You need to take care of yourself.
Here are some self-care tips to consider:
Maintain your lifestyle. It can be difficult to stay strong emotionally when supporting a survivor of sexual abuse. Maintaining your lifestyle and continuing to do what you enjoy is important for your emotional wellness.
If you enjoy painting, cooking, exercising, spending time with friends, or other activities, keep them up. It may seem challenging to make time to do these activities, but they can be helpful self-care strategies in the long-run.
Make plans and carry them out. Sometimes talking about what you're going through as a supporter of your loved one can help. Just remember at all times to respect the privacy and confidentiality of the person you're supporting.
Take time out regularly to do things you really enjoy. Take a mental break from thinking about your support situation. This will recharge you personally, and you'll be a much more meaningful, present and capable supporter.
You could go to dinner with a group of friends who understand this isn't time to discuss what happened. Maybe you prefer a solo activity, like going on long walks. Let this be a time where you can take your mind off the abuse your Loved One has suffered.
Take time to relax. This is worth reinforcing again. Relaxation means different things for everyone. You might consider meditation or deep breathing exercises. Maybe keeping a journal will help you sort through your thoughts and find peace. Actually schedule these things - whatever they are for you - into your day for these moments of relaxation so that you don't miss out due to your own busy life.
Whether you have experienced something similar in the past or not, you may experience an unexpected upheaval of emotions. Everything from shock to anger to grief is extremely common.
You may be surprised at the range of your own emotional responses. Look out for symptoms of anxiety and depression. Remember, you are your loved one's supporter - not their therapist. HELP is here to support you too, as you support your loved one. If you need assistance and advice yourself, please get in touch with us.