How To Support a Survivor of Sexual Abuse

Apr 7th, 2010 | By | Category: All Posts, Articles

Christina Enevoldsen

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Ask what physical contact they would like. After being violated by touch, survivors may feel repulsed by touch or may want it.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Educate yourself so you know what to expect. Do your own research on sexual abuse, the results and the healing process.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.

[read Christina's story here]

Does this resonate with you? Please join in by leaving your thoughts and feelings about this topic and don’t forget to subscribe to the comments.

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15 comments
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  1. thank you. is it okay if i post this in other places for people to see?

  2. Yes, that’s fine.

  3. so true,,

  4. There’s so many tips that I already knew, and there are also tips that I actually need to start using here like number 6, 9, and 13. I kinda have a problem with number 6 because most times, I have omnipotent hatred for the person who abused or attacked the girl I’m talking to. My girlfriend was raped when she was 11, and in all honesty, if I had… See More the chance, I’d castrate them. But you are right about only being angry at the actions, or so I understand.

    Number 13, I kinda made a mistake with that one recently. But REM was able to help me with that one. I gotta agree with the facing of your fears, for sure.

    Thanks so much for this list. It’s gonna come in handy for me in the future, for sure. And I gotta work on my skills.

  5. Thanks so much for sharing this info.

  6. Ty 4 sharing this…I am going to send it to a friend of mine…We met about a month ago or so and I have told her I was abuse/raped…I think this will help her in helping me and what not…

  7. Marin, I can identify with your feelings about hating the abuser. I friend of mine kept her abuser-uncle in her life and continued to seek his favor even though he was really mean to her. I hated that he was getting away with what he had done and what he was doing and I also hated that he was a continual source of pain for her.

    I said awful … See Morethings about him and one day she exploded in anger toward me. She was mad that I didn’t understand that she loved him and felt so conflicted. She felt like I was trying to control her healing process. While I don’t think having my own feelings about her abuser was at all controlling on my part, expressing them to her was my attempt to tell her how she should feel about him.

    I stopped bashing him and a few months later she got to the place where she was enraged toward him. Even then, I was careful what I said.

    It’s normal to be angry toward someone who hurts somebody you care about. Accept your feelings toward that person, but don’t express them around the survivor. Have a support person for yourself that you can share your own feelings about the abuse with so you are taken care of too.

  8. Boy… I would love to add to this… lol… it’s so tempting… :P but I must be obedient to myself and take a break… maybe in a few days if it’s ok Christina… I could add some thoughts to this?…

    Love and life remain within…
    ~REM

  9. Rachel, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this whenever you’re ready.

  10. Wow! I sure wish I could persuade some of the people in my life to read this. This is great!!!
    I have just recently decided to face what happened to me all those years ago. And of course it was just recently that I told pretty much everyone (with the exception of maybe a couple of people and I have not confronted my abuser). Everyone says they “… See Morebelieve me”. What I have found though is that there are not many people in my life that want to continue talking about it. The only people who are willing is my therapist, my friend John and my aunt Laura who I don’t see very often. It’s too awkward for everyone else I guess. Which of course makes it awkward for me as well. I have still not found a way to accept that (I can’t force them to want to talk about it) while trying to heal at the same time. Most people want you to just shut up about it. I may be wrong but this is what I have run into in my experience so far :(
    I did tell my mom that it was happening. She asked my abuser, he denied it and she believed him. I think I was 11 then. In third grade I did try to tell my teacher. She did not believe me. After that I never said another word about it to anyone until just eight months ago. I will be 30 this October.

  11. I would also like to add that I like 13. Even though I am very new in the healing process I know it is worth pointing out the serious consequences involved when one doesn’t deal with sexual abuse. My abuser was sexually abused as a child. He never got help and he did it to someone else.

  12. Last comment, promise. For females it’s different. Most females who don’t get help usually don’t abuse someone else. They end up in unhealthy relationships and sometimes they marry someone just like their abuser and the cycle starts all over with their children. I don’t want that to be me!

  13. I know for me talking to others about my abuse has been very difficult but empowering. I have noticed that it is a topic where people don’t know what to say or some think there is an easy fix. What I find myself reminding people that this is a life journey. It is a learning process that will continue and that while it is very difficult at times, it… See More is how I progress and move forward and take what I learn and use it for good and the positive as much as I can. There will be bad days especially at the start but I don’t need someone to “fix” me, I need a friend someone who can just be there for me to lean on and say they support me no matter what! Those people can be hard to find but well worth the search and reaching out to…

  14. [...] Now I’m surrounded by my Family-of-Choice. Most of my friends have been wonderfully supportive, even if they don’t quite understand it all. I communicate my needs to the friends who want to support my healing process. For examples of specific needs, “How To Support A Survivor of Sexual Abuse”. [...]

  15. [...] Related Posts: Dating After Sexual Abuse: Is This Love? How To Support A Survivor of Sexual Abuse [...]

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