Whether something happened to your friend, classmate, partner, student or child, it can sometimes be difficult to know how to help. Here are some things to keep in mind when supporting someone who has experienced sexual assault.
Supporting Survivors of Sexual Assault
If someone comes to you and discloses that something happened to them, know that it probably took a lot of courage for them to do so. For some people, it takes years before they tell anyone. Here are some things to keep in mind –
If it’s an acute situation, ask if they are safe and/ or need medical attention. Do your best to help them get to a safe place.
Thank the person for telling you and show that you are listening. Give the person the space to say what they want to say about it. Be aware that the person might not want to tell you everything that happened that night. For some people it can be traumatizing to go back to those memories unless they feel ready to. Others may be in a place where they want to share the whole story.
Reinforce that you believe them and that what happened is NOT THEIR FAULT. Avoid asking questions that begin with WHY or that show you might not believe them. For example, “Why were you there?” or “How well do you remember?” Instead ask questions like, “How can I support you right now?” “What do you need in this moment?” Affirm what the person is saying.
Empower the person to make choices that are best for them. Avoid saying things like “You should go to counseling.” Instead, try to get a sense of what the person is ready for. You might say, “I know some people find counseling helpful in situations like this, is that something you think could be helpful for you?”
Make a plan. Sometimes survivors report that they tell someone and one of two things happens- either the other person never brings it up or the other person brings it up all the time. Both of those routes can be frustrating or anxiety provoking. At the end of the conversation ask, “Going forward how can I support you?” or say something like, “I’m worried about you. Can I check in about this again?” Agree on a plan that you both feel good about.
Take care of yourself! 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, feel intense fear for your or the survivor’s safety, feel anger towards the attacker, feel depressed and powerless, or feel guilty that you could not prevent what happened. All these feelings are normal reactions, but it can be helpful to meet with a counselor to share what you are feeling. Even if you choose not to meet with a professional, be sure to get support for yourself, whether from friends, family, a partner, or a mentor. Supporting someone after a sexual assault is emotionally difficult in many ways. Be sure to take care of yourself, too.
Learn more about sexual assault. Healing after an assault is a complex process. People react differently so it’s important to respect each person’s individual coping style without placing judgement on it. At the same time, many survivors of sexual assault find it helpful to know that some reactions and symptoms are common and can include symptoms of PTSD. In responding to someone you care about, it can also be helpful to understand some of the symptoms they may be experiencing.
Common Physical Reactions:
- Rapid heartbeat and breathing
- Frequent colds
- Muscle aches and stiffnessCommon
Mental/ Emotional Reactions:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Mind racing or going blank
- Increased feelings of anxiety, worry, nervousness, anger, impatience, and/ or irritability
- Sadness, loss of a sense of humor
- Guilt and unrealistic feelings that we could have done something or more to prevent the trauma
- Flashbacks, preoccupation and nightmare of the incident
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Increased or decreased eating
- Nervous habits- nail biting, foot tapping
- Increased use of substances-alcohol or other drugs
- Avoidance of work or spending time with friend
There are many resources out there for you and the person you care about. BARCC (Boston Area Rape Crisis Center) offers groups for family/ friends/partners of survivors. Check out the website http://www.barcc.org/help/services/groups to see current offerings.