Someone has just told you that they were sexually abused as a child. What do you say? How do you act? How do you make sure you are not revictimizing a loved one with your response and reaction?
With more and more survivors feeling empowered to talk about their abuse, the chances that someone you know and love will disclose their abuse to you are pretty high. You may even be the first person the survivor tells. It’s very possible the survivor may open up at a seemingly inconvenient or emotional time (weddings, holidays, funerals), so the more prepared you are, the better.
How you react and what you say is powerful; the impact of your words could lift someone up, or it could cause feelings of rejection and isolation. Compassion is crucial.
Writer, advocate, and survivor Joelle Casteix has a free eBook, The Compassionate Response: How to Help and Empower the Adult Survivor of Child Sexual Abuse, that lists six things you can do when a survivor trusts you enough to disclose:
- Tell the survivor you believe him or her. This may be surprising to you, but it’s very possible you will be the first person to respond to the survivor in a compassionate and kind manner. Well-meaning people may have tried to minimize the abuse (“Oh, it happens everywhere these days. You’ll be okay”). Others may have clammed up or changed the subject, as some people in uncomfortable situations don’t know how to react in the moment. The worst reactions are the ones that instantly shift the blame to the victim (“Why didn’t you just leave?” “Why didn’t you tell your parents or call the police?” “You‘re responsible if you did nothing to stop it.”).
- If the crime is recent, a child tells you they have been sexually abused, or the victim is in immediate danger, call 911. If the crime is not recent, but you suspect that children are still in danger of abuse, encourage the survivor to report to law enforcement (and offer to help, if you feel comfortable doing so). Many times, an older survivor will come forward when they hear that the person who abused them has been accused by others. This is very important: older survivors can work with law enforcement and act as witnesses for younger victims, to help put predators behind bars.
- Tell the survivor you are very sorry that such a horrible thing happened and that it was a crime. Tell them that the abuse was entirely the fault of the abuser, not the victim. Like most victims of a crime, survivors of sexual abuse want very simple things: empathy and accountability. Even if the survivor dismisses your validation by saying something like, “It’s all right. I’m over it,” the survivor heard you and knows that you care. The survivor may not embrace your words openly, but he or she does relish your empathy. Even when survivors are hurt or angry, they hear you. Your words make a difference.
- Do not tell a survivor to forgive the abuser. Survivors, especially those abused in religious organizations, are often encouraged to “forgive and move on.” No survivor should have to carry that burden. While forgiveness can be an important part of the healing process for some survivors, every survivor’s journey towards healing looks different and should be respected. Either way, forgiveness never implies that an abuser should escape accountability.
- Tell the survivor that he or she is brave for coming forward and that you admire their courage. Affirm openly that the survivor is a good person and that you are happy they are courageous enough to talk about what happened to them. Reinforce that the survivor is not powerless and that by speaking out, they can break the cycle of abuse. It may sound cliché, but every time a survivor speaks out, more and more people become aware of abuse and how abusers access victims.
- Encourage the survivor to get help. Therapy and peer support have helped millions of crime victims get the healing they deserve. There are numerous resources online where survivors can find therapists and low- or not-cost support.
Your role is this: listen, validate, and empower the survivor. When you engage in the simple act of listening compassionately, you are giving the survivor a tremendous gift.