The dreadful memory may rush to your mind in an instant: taking a phone call from your child, partner, or friend and learning they were the victim of rape or sexual assault. Your mind may still be flooded with questions months or years later, and you may be struggling to move on from what happened even while doing everything you can to help your loved one move forward.
The support of friends, family, and significant others is essential to rebuilding trust and reducing shame in the aftermath of sexual trauma. In fact, loved ones are often the primary sources of support if a victim is not yet ready to seek therapy or explore other paths of healing.
As a friend, partner, or parent, you may feel lost or concerned about saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Perhaps you wonder how to proceed with a conversation that may hold a great deal of pain for both of you. Consider the guidelines below on how to best provide nonjudgmental empathy, compassion, and support to a loved one who was raped or sexually assaulted.
1. Let the Details Emerge at Your Loved One’s Pace
You may want answers: “Have you told the school administration?” “Do your friends know who the attacker is?” “Were there any warning signs that this was going to happen?” “Was there alcohol involved?”
Your loved one may not have even considered these questions, however, or may still be in a state of shock. Although answers may help you understand what happened, the focus should be on providing support for them. Also, consider how it might feel to be questioned in this way—it might evoke a sense of blame or guilt, as though a person could or should have done something differently to avoid the incident.
Let the details unfold naturally, on your loved one’s terms, and keep questions to a minimum. Recognize your loved one will share the details they find important to tell you—on their timeline.
2. Check In … Gently
As a psychotherapist, I hear many instances of rape survivors feeling disappointed that their friends or family no longer ask how they are doing in coping with their trauma. The most common reason for this seems to be some variation of, “I don’t want to bring it up since I know it upsets you.” It can indeed be upsetting, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be processed.
Simple check-ins without prying for details—such as “I’m thinking of you today; how are your therapy sessions going?” or “Is there anything I can do to help with what you’re feeling?”—may reassure your friend, child, or partner they have your support. Although you might feel like you’re protecting your loved one by not asking how they’re doing, consider the possibility you are only protecting yourself from your difficult feelings while they are still struggling with their own.
Gentle check-ins can remind your loved one you are still an option for support, even months or years after the incident.
There is no “right” way to process and heal from sexual assault—for the survivor or for you. By providing gentle and nonjudgmental support for your loved one, you support them in taking back control.
3. Respect Their Choices, Even If You Don’t Understand Them
The best path to your loved one’s healing may seem obvious to you: “Take some time off of school, join a support group, press charges, and incorporate healthy activities!” This might be how you might choose to heal and move forward, but there is no one-size-fits-all approach to coping with trauma.
A large number of sexual assaults go unreported, and for a host of reasons: the victim may fear retribution, dread the thought of facing their attacker in court, or feel ill-prepared to have their most difficult life event publicized. By pressuring your loved one to handle things your way, you inhibit their ability to choose—an option that was also removed from them at the time of their rape or assault. It can be painful to re-experience this when a person is seeking support.
There is no “right” way to process and heal from sexual assault—for the survivor or for you. By providing gentle and nonjudgmental support for your loved one, you support them in taking back control. Remember: this person told you for a reason, and that reason was likely that they trusted they would receive unconditional love and empathy from a person who cares.
Your healing and processing are important, too. Be sure to practice self-care strategies and/or seek support from a therapist if you are struggling to cope.
© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lindsey C. Pratt, MA, NCC, MHC, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert
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