Sexual assault has become far too prevalent in American society. According to The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, “1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape” and “1 in 33 American men have experienced an attempted or completed rape”. These statistics only represent sexual assaults that have been reported and many believe that far more occur and go unreported each year. Many survivors of sexual assault struggle to tell their friends and family about what happened for fear of judgment, retaliation from the offender, or due to feelings of guilt and shame. When your loved one tells you that that they have been sexually assaulted, it can be hard to know what to say. As a mental health therapist with experience in working with survivors of trauma, I know that having a great support system is crucial for survivors of sexual assault. The following are my tips for how to support a loved one who is a survivor of sexual assault:
Validate their feelings
We all enjoy have our feelings validated, especially by someone that we love and care about. It seems obvious, but sometimes we can have a tendency to jump to problem solving and forgo validation. Your loved one has just experienced something that no one should have to endure. One way to support them is to validate the feelings that they are able to express to you. An example of validation would be if for example your loved one says, “I can’t get out of bed. I keep replaying what happened in my mind. I just wish I could find him and punish him for what he did to me.” You could validate their feelings by stating, “It sounds like you are in a lot of pain right now. You are also feeling really angry and wish that he would have some consequences.” It may seem silly, but validation can be incredibly powerful. Validating your loved one can help them to feel you are listening and that you understand how they are feeling.
Emphasize their strengths
If you’re loved one has shared with you that they are sexually assaulted, it can be helpful to focus on their strengths. Choosing to tell you about what happened to them took incredible strength and bravery, and it important that you emphasize this point. It is so difficult for many survivors of sexual assault to talk about what happened. In addition, many survivors feel incredible guilt and shame surrounding what happened. Focusing on how much strength it took for them to tell you about what happened, can help to empower the survivor and could help to eradicate some of the shame that they feel.
Reinforce that what happened to them was not their fault
When someone is sexually assaulted, the only person to blame is the perpetrator. Many survivors wrongly blame themselves for what happened to them. It is important that you tell them that no matter what they were wearing, what party they went to, or how much they had to drink, what happened to them was in no way their fault. One way to help a survivor to see their situation from a more realistic perspective could be to ask them how they would feel if this same thing happened to their close friend. Would they say that it was their friend’s fault that they were sexually assaulted? No matter what they did, no one deserves to be sexually assaulted.
Empower them, rather than telling them what to do
Someone who has been assaulted has experienced a situation over which they had no control. It is important that you do not try to control how they choose to handle what happened. Instead, empower the survivor to make their own decisions about what is best for them. You can definitely talk over their options with them in regards to things like reporting, medical examinations, and seeking mental health therapy-that is if they are open to having this conversation. However, everyone copes with trauma differently. For instance, one individual might want to attend mental health therapy right away, whereas another might need a few months before they feel comfortable beginning to process the trauma that they experienced. It is important that you respect the survivor’s decisions and let them know that you will support the choices that they make. Along this same vein, always ask your loved one if they are interested before providing them with any resources. Enable your loved one to feel in control of their recovery and their life.
Sexual assault is something that no one should have to endure. It is important that you also make sure to take good care of your own mental health. You cannot be there for your loved one in a helpful way, if you are not caring for your own mental health needs. Just know that for your loved one, your support is so significant. It may not feel like you are doing enough, but simply having someone to listen in a nonjudgmental and validating manner can be so helpful for survivors.