… (Part Two) How TO respond to a survivor

My previous post what not to say to a survivor stemmed from a thread on Twitter that was liked and retweeted many times. Survivors identified with the responses from others after disclosing their own child sexual abuse. Some added more to the list. One person replied with ‘thank you for sharing. What would be helpful to say to a survivor?’ and I began to reflect on responses that had helped me.

My experiences are as a survivor of child sexual abuse but the sentiment here applies to disclosures of any type of sexual violence/domestic violence/coercive control and rape.

Allow the person to take their time. Don’t hurry them. It’s hard to speak when you’ve been silent for a long time. It’s normal for someone to start disclosing and then shut down again. Don’t push. They’re not ready.

‘Thank you for sharing it with me’

‘I’m sorry you experienced that’

‘I believe you’

‘How can I best support you now?’

‘You are not alone’

Be mindful of physical contact, for example say ‘would you like a hug?’ rather than assuming they would. Disclosure is triggering. Body memories may be going crazy. A survivor who discloses can be in a fragile state and for some, touch could be unwelcome and make their skin crawl. They may feel unable to tell you as they don’t want to add to the distress they know they’re already causing. For others, physical contact will be a great comfort. Just ask.

Please be mindful of your language. Some words, for example rape, abuse, paedophile, can be unbearable for a survivor who hasn’t yet processed the trauma -and can be extremely triggering.

Always let them lead the conversation.

They need warmth, empathy and kindness.

They need someone to listen to them, without judgement. That includes judgement of the family (if abuse occurred within the family). Intrafamilial abuse is complex and particularly traumatic for a survivor as it involves high levels of betrayal, stigma and secrecy. It requires specialist help to undo the damage. It can take time for the survivor to feel the anger, judgement or disappointment that you may feel towards members of the family you think were complicit/ turned a blind eye/ or not noticed the abuse. They may never react in the way you feel they should, or you feel you would react if you were in their shoes. This is their choice. Not yours.

You may feel angry but reacting with anger is not helpful. It is common for men to react with ‘I’m going to kill him.’ All this does is make the survivor worry about the consequences of speaking out and perhaps wish they hadn’t said anything at all.

They need to feel that you still think of them in the same way you did before. They may be scrutinising you for changes in behaviour, avoidance of eye-contact, anything at all to signal that you’re looking at them in disgust or distaste. Bear in mind that shame is an emotion commonly experienced by survivors of sexual violence. You may feel uncomfortable but the survivor will be feeling more so. If you are to proclaim that ‘this is just too much!’ and walk away, the survivor may feel devastated. This may have been one of their main fears.

They don’t need you to try and solve it. There’s nothing to solve. There are steps that can be taken, for example reporting the crime to the police, and there are trained professionals whose job it is to advise, support and refer survivors. A helpful step would be to signpost the survivor to a rape and sexual abuse charity who will put them in touch with an ISVA (independent sexual violence advisor), and perhaps refer them to support groups and specialist therapy.

If you make it into your drama, they will feel responsible for your distress. It is normal for people to experience strong emotions; to want to scream and shout, to cry and feel great sorrow. It is advisable to seek your own professional support in the form of counselling to help you navigate this new terrain. For the survivor, being on the receiving end of your distress can feel overwhelming, as the chances are they haven’t yet received the opportunity to process their own trauma.

Finally, please don’t take matters into your own hands by confronting the abuser or reporting the crime to the police yourself. Keeping silent makes the survivor feel in control. When they speak out, it can feel like they’re handing that control over to someone else. This can feel terrifying. They had no control during the abuse and consequently must now be allowed as much autonomy over their next steps as possible. This will be a vital aspect of their recovery.

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