Healing Resources for Child Sexual Abuse Survivors:Building Your Support Network
Many survivors of child sexual abuse report feeling isolated, disconnected, and alone in many areas of their lives. Some effects of abuse are often felt most acutely on an individual, personal level. As a survivor, you may struggle to connect or sustain connections with other people. Despite this hurdle, your ability to heal from past trauma is greatly accelerated when you are able to draw upon the strength, care, and support of others in your life.1,2
What Does a Support Network Look Like?
Having a strong support network doesn’t mean you depend upon others to prop you up in every aspect of your life. In fact, that approach has shown to have a negative impact on well-being. Building a support network also doesn’t mean amassing hundreds of connections on social media or professional organizations. Rather, the best support networks happen when you are connected with others in ways that open the door for meaningful relationships, receiving assistance at critical times, and feeling valued in who you are and what you contribute.
How Big Does My Support Network Need to Be?
When you are connected to many different people, it increases the likelihood that you will have more social contact and access to more support. However, this needs to be balanced with the reality that there are types of help that only come from relationships that have depth, security, and commitment. Make efforts to expand your circle of connection, and strengthen your connection to those you consider your “inner circle.”
What Kinds of Support Should I Be Looking For?
The answer to this question depends on your personal circumstances and goals. But here are a few common forms of support that survivors have noted are most important to gather around them:
- Someone who listens to me.
- Someone who can help me when I am in a crisis.
- Someone who understands what I am going through.
- Someone I enjoy being around.
- Someone who knows how to be honest and forthright with me without emotionally attacking me.
- Someone who I can be secure and vulnerable with and who won’t take advantage of me.
- Someone who I can, in turn, support and whose life I can enrich even as I am working through my own challenges.
- Someone who I can trust.
Support can take on different manifestations. For example, if you lose your phone, you may have a friend who initially points out that your phone is missing. Or you may have a co-worker who offers the use of their phone while you are looking for where you misplaced yours. In this scenario, it may even be a stranger who finds your phone and keeps it safe until you can retrieve it. Finally, you may just need a family member to listen as you recount the stressful experience and how grateful you are for the help you received. In this example, there were tangible supports provided to you, as well as meaningful interactions you had while you were getting help. All of these forms of support are valuable.
Now think about support as it relates to healing from your past trauma. There may be individuals who can offer tangible support like quality information or an emotional uplift when we need someone to stand with us. There are others who we feel confident we could call upon should the need arise. Even if we rarely reach out to them, just knowing they are there and would respond positively can make a huge difference.
How Do I Find a Therapist?
Working with a trained clinician is often a key part of healing from sexual abuse, but finding a therapist can feel overwhelming. The likelihood that you will find value from your work with a therapist can be influenced by your relationship with them. Here are five steps you can follow to find a therapist who is a good fit for you:
Do some research.
See what therapists are near you, who your insurance covers, and which ones are accepting new patients. This may take some time, but it will be worth it in the long run. Also, consider whether you have a preference on the gender of your therapist.
Consider using a search tool like Psychology Today to help you explore available mental health professionals in your area.
When you’ve narrowed your list down to four or five therapists, call their office, and ask if you can have a short informal meeting to see if you would feel comfortable working with them. Many therapists will be willing to meet with you briefly either in person or over the phone so that you can decide if they are a good fit for you.
Consider what you want.
Take some time before your meeting to decide what you want to get out of therapy. What do you want to address first? What are you not quite ready to discuss?
When you meet with the therapist don’t be afraid to ask questions. Consider asking things like:
- What’s your training and background?
- Do you specialize in anything particular?
- Do you have a background in working with survivors of sexual abuse?
- What is your experience in offering trauma-informed care?
- Are you a practitioner of EMDR? If so, how long have you been practicing this form of therapy?
Trust your intuition.
You’ll be able to tell pretty quickly if this therapist is someone you can talk to about your trauma. If they don’t seem like a fit for you, then find someone else. The most important thing is finding someone you’re comfortable with who can be honest with you and who has the knowledge to help you.
Resources to Help Find Mental Health Support
Talk therapy can be an important step in your healing journey, especially when you have a therapist who is a good match for you, and whom you can trust. Too often survivors don’t receive the full benefit of talk therapy simply because they feel they can’t open up to their therapist. Don’t be afraid to find someone else you can talk to. Your healing will be worth it.
To find out what mental health support is near you, you can also contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) (also known as the Treatment Referral Routing Service). This service will help you find treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations in your area.
Using Therapeutic Apps to Expand Your Access to Support
Help on your healing journey can be as close as your smart phone. During the last decade, therapeutic apps seem to have been created for many different uses ranging from meditation guides to helping manage anxiety and panic attacks. There are even some applications that can help connect you to various therapeutic techniques and tools that mental health professionals can advise you to incorporate in your everyday life.
While an application on your phone will not entirely replace traditional mental health services offered by skilled and caring professionals with whom you can share details of your trauma and work through challenges with, these apps can offer an accessible way for you to get support at any hour of the day.
Here are a few that you may want to check out:
PTSD Coach provides educational information and reliable treatments that work. Use this app to become more aware of triggers and symptoms and learn about coping tools such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation exercises.
ACT Coach focuses on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy strategies and helps you live with unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and impulses without avoiding them or being controlled by them.
Headspace helps you be more mindful through meditation. A variety of options allow you to pick how long you want to meditate and what specific topic you want to focus on: anxiety, sleep, anger, regret, etc.
LifeArmor is a comprehensive learning and self-help tool that provides information about a variety of topics, including substance abuse, anger, anxiety, depression, PTSD, relationships, and sexual trauma.
How Can a Support Group Help Me Heal?
Individuals have found that being part of a support group increases their trust in others, helps them feel less isolated and judged, and can reduce their distress, depression, and anxiety. Dr. Irvin David Yalom termed this experience “the principle of universality,” which is simply the act of receiving and giving support and the way it strengthens feelings of worth and personal ability. This support, both given and received, can promote personal growth and healing in ways that may not be possible if you were doing it alone.3,4
Support groups can be a validating and healing space where you hear others share similar thoughts and feelings, almost as if they are speaking your truth and your story. This allows for a level of understanding that we often don’t get to feel in our everyday interactions. Even if other group participants have different experiences than one another, the opportunity to have connection, be supported, and hear a variety of perspectives can be both refreshing and empowering.
Attending therapy and reaching out to friends and family are encouraged and applauded when it is safe and possible for you to do so. As helpful as a therapist may be however, they are only one person. And friends and family, no matter how well-meaning, may not understand the full impact of what you have been through, or may not be able to hear your story with an open heart. Support groups can bridge those gaps or fill them when they are not safe or available to a survivor. Individuals who have attended support groups have often said that they feel they found their tribe. They feel understood and validated, sometimes for the first time.
How Can I Find a Support Group?
If you feel it is a good time in your healing journey to pursue joining a support group, there are several ways of going about finding one. Speak to your doctor, therapist, or local clinic/hospital and see if they have any recommendations. National health institutions may list specific groups on their websites that they know are being held, as well as nonprofits that advocate for particular life challenges or circumstances.
Saprea Support Groups provide an opportunity for women 18 years and older who are survivors of child sexual abuse to have a safe space to openly discuss and be validated for the harmful impact of their abuse.
Check out the website FindingHope.org to find support groups in your area or online, as well as resources to assist you in starting a group if there isn’t one in your community. All of these materials and resources are free, and the support group was created using evidence-based practices in relation to healing from child sexual abuse.
Drawing Upon Others for Support
Each individual has a unique configuration of people in their life who can offer help and assistance when we need support. Just like a patchwork quilt that is made from stitching together many small pieces of material, your support network may be comprised of many different people who offer their own specific form of help as you continue on your healing journey.
As you gather others around you and draw upon them for support, you are practicing:
- Acknowledgement by recognizing your need for support from others, whether through therapy, counseling, support groups, family members, or friends.
- Mindfulness by guiding your attention toward the trusted people in your life as you interact with them and receive their support.
- Aspiration by opening the door to new opportunities and connections that may evolve into meaningful relationships in the future.
How Can I Best Support a Survivor of Child Sexual Abuse?
We believe in empowering survivors. We also believe in empowering their supporters, and you can play an immense role in the healing journey of those you love and care about. It can be hard to know how to support a friend, family member, or partner when you learn that they are a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Knowing the right thing to do or say can be difficult.
Ways to Help
Here are four key actions you can take to support others who have been sexually abused:
Learn More About the Impacts Sexual Abuse Can Have
This will help you develop more empathy and understanding for some of the challenges your loved one may be experiencing.
Sometimes just being willing to hear what others have experienced or are experiencing is the greatest gift you can offer. Don’t be afraid to reply with, “I am not sure what to say right now, but I am glad you are willing to share with me. I’m here for you.”
Offer Encouragement and Be Patient
Verbalize your commitment to help and support. The effects of sexual abuse can be deep and long-lasting. You may need to set aside your own priorities at times so that the survivor in your life can find the space to take one more step toward healing from their trauma.
Remember to Take Care of Yourself
It can be easy to become so focused on the person you’re supporting that you neglect your own needs. Remember that your self-care is important, and that in order to uplift and empower others, you have to also replenish yourself. This might include setting certain boundaries with the survivor in your life. For instance, if you feel too emotionally exhausted to offer support during a specific moment, you might instead ask that the two of you reconnect at a different time.
We have created a resource that is designed especially for you as a supporter to become more educated about the impacts of sexual abuse and that can offer guidance in your relationships with those in your life who have been abused.
How to Respond When Someone Discloses Past Abuse
The opportunity for a survivor of sexual abuse to reveal their story to another person is powerful and extremely impactful. Research has consistently demonstrated that how other people respond when someone discloses past abuse can be tremendously helpful in promoting healing.5 Conversely, when someone takes a big step to share their story and they are dismissed or demeaned, it can become another barrier to resolving the harm of trauma. Here are some important considerations you can keep in mind that will help these moments to be positive steps toward healing:
- Listen calmly and supportively.
- Accept what details are shared with you. Don’t challenge, dismiss, or criticize how they viewed their experience.
- Show respect, not pity.
- Avoid minimizing or excusing what the perpetrator did.
- Don’t demand every detail of what occurred.
- Validate and ask what you can do to show support.
- Avoid telling them what to do or try to take charge.
- Allow space and time for them to express what they feel comfortable sharing.
It’s not always easy asking for help. The survivor in your life may not know what help they need or even how to ask for it. We are grateful to you for being the type of person who is willing to stand as a supporter and do your part to offer healing to those who have endured sexual abuse.