How To Support a Survivor of Sexual AbuseApr 7th, 2010 | By Christina Enevoldsen | Category: All Posts, Articles
by Christina Enevoldsen
If a friend or family member tells you he or she was sexually abused, please consider the importance of your role in the healing process. Disbelief or disinterest from loved ones can intensify or prolong trauma from abuse. It is emotionally overwhelming when someone you love and trust doesn’t believe you or doesn’t care that something devastating has happened to you. Please note that this list is for adult survivors of sexual abuse. If a child discloses abuse to you, it is your responsibility to report it.
Survivors of abuse have a variety to reactions to the abuse. There is no right or wrong way for them to respond. They may cry and become depressed or become numb and push their feelings aside.
- Let the survivor speak as much or as little as they feel comfortable with. Do not press for details and don’t try to change the subject until they are ready to move on.
- Don’t invalidate their experience by sharing something from your own life that you think is similar. You may think you are communicating that you understand their pain, but don’t assume that you know how they feel.
- Never question their experience. Assure them that you believe them and avoid questions like, “Are you sure?” Sometimes, you may know their abuser and view them as a good person, but “good people” can do bad things. You may also have conflicting allegiances if their abuser is your child or mate. It’s hard to believe someone they love could commit such a monstrous act, but the survivor was not at fault and needs your support.
- Be careful in what emotions you express. Of course you are human and you are going to feel sad, confused or angry. However, you do not want the survivor to think you are angry with them or that they have to take care of you. Make sure you have a support system so you are taking care of yourself.
- Ask what physical contact they would like. After being violated by touch, survivors may feel repulsed by touch or may want it.
- Often a survivor knows their perpetrator. It may be a family member or close friend. Because there may be mixed emotions on the survivor’s part be careful not to condemn the person. Condemn their behavior, but leave the rest alone. It is an emotional process the survivor will have to go through in sorting out their feelings.
- Do not make promises about the perpetrator going to jail. There are statutes of limitations to consider, the court process can be lengthy and you cannot control the outcome.
- Don’t view the survivor as damaged. Sexual abuse carries a great deal of shame and they already feel different from others. Be sensitive to the wounded places, but see the difference between who they are and what has happened to them.
- It is important to allow the survivor to have control over the situation. It is their decision if they want to go to counseling or contact the police. They have already lost control through the abuse and they need to regain it through healing in their own way at their own pace.
- The survivor’s emotions may appear to be a roller coaster at times. There may be sadness one day, anger the next and avoidance after that. Do not assume that because they are not crying that they are not bothered by the abuse or that they are over it. A survivor may feel they are weak if they cry or are avoiding their emotions because they are not ready to feel the pain of the experience.
- Educate yourself so you know what to expect. Do your own research on sexual abuse, the results and the healing process.
- Don’t ask how long the process will take. They don’t know. They experienced a loss and need to be allowed to grieve. Allow them to grieve without trying to fix them. Don’t try to make them laugh when they’re sad.
- Don’t say, “Just forgive him and let it go.” Or “Why try to dig up the past?” They aren’t trying to dig up the past just for your sympathy or attention. This is a life changing event and it can have serious consequences if it is not thoroughly dealt with. They can’t forget this. They need to face the pain so they can leave it there and move toward a better future.
Christina Enevoldsen is cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse, an online resource for male and female abuse survivors looking for practical answers and tools for healing. Christina’s passions are writing and speaking about her own journey of healing from abuse and inspiring people toward wholeness. She and her husband live in Los Angeles and share three children and four grandchildren.
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