April 10, 2017

Supporting Survivors on Their Healing Journey

You can recognize survivors of abuse by their courage. When silence is so very inviting, they step forward and share their truth so others know they aren’t alone.

–Jeanne McElvaney–

If someone close to you is a survivor of sexual abuse, it can be hard to know exactly how to lend your support. While it’s true that survivors have to take ownership of their recovery, you can do a lot to help. You can’t do the healing for them, but there are things you can do to make it easier for them to heal themselves.

In addition to the trauma that survivors can suffer when abuse initially happens, survivors also risk suffering new trauma when they disclose their past experiences if loved ones don’t respond in helpful and healthy ways. Gurvinder Kalra and Dinesh Bhugra point out, “Victims of sexual violence face the danger of suffering negative reactions upon disclosing their trauma.”

When a survivor opens up to you about what has happened to them, acknowledge how much courage it takes to talk about past traumatic experiences. Survivors have often kept their abuse to themselves for years. To them, it might seem easier to stay silent. Let the survivor know that you appreciate their bravery in facing memories and issues that might have happened years ago. Here are some specific things you can do to support your loved one.

Do . . .

  • Thank her for telling you.
  • Reassure her you are there are for her.
  • Validate her feelings.
  • Ask what you can to do help and support her.
  • Let her know that the abuse is not her fault.

Don’t . . .

  • Criticize, blame, shame, or judge her.
  • Excuse or minimize the abuse.
  • Demand to know details of the abuse; she’ll tell you when she’s ready.
  • Take control and tell her what she needs to do to heal.
  • Tell her to forget about it or just get over it.
  • Question why she didn’t tell you (or someone else) sooner.

Remember that sexual abuse can create serious problems with trust for survivors because in most situations, perpetrators are people the survivor knew and trusted. The fact that she is willing to open up to you shows that she trusts you. Work to continue to build and maintain that trust.

Your goal is to empower your loved one to make good choices that will lead to healing from past abuse. You can’t heal for her, but you can make the healing process easier.