How to Help an Adult Survivor If They Tell You
They Were Sexually Abused as a Child
This is written from the perspective of a female survivor, but sexual abuse happens to men as well and these principles apply to helping a male survivor too.
This is taken with permission from the authors from the book THE COURAGE TO HEAL by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis (20th Anniversary Edition).
When a survivor tells you that she was sexually abused as a child, she is entrusting you with a part of her life that is painful, frightening, and vulnerable.
These guidelines can help you honor that trust and assist her healing:
- Be willing to listen. Let her know that you are open to hearing anything she wishes to share and that although it’s painful and upsetting, you are willing to enter those difficult places with her and to receive her words with respect.
- Join with the survivor in validating the damage. All Abuse is harmful. Even if it’s not violent, overtly physical, or repeated, all abuse has serious consequences. There is no positive or neutral experience of sexual abuse.
- Be clear that abuse is never the child’s fault. No child seduces an abuser. Children ask for affection and attention, not for sexual abuse. Even if a child responds sexually, even if she wasn’t forced or didn’t protest, it is still never the child’s fault. It is always the responsibility of the adult not to be sexual with a child.
- Educate yourself about sexual abuse and the healing process. If you have a basic idea of what the survivor is going through, it will help you to be supportive. Read The Courage to Heal and see the Resources Guide at the back of the book for other suggested reading.
- Don’t sympathize with the abuser. The survivor needs your absolute loyalty.
- Validate the survivor’s feelings: her anger, pain, and fear. These are natural, healthy responses. She needs to feel them, express them, and be heard.
- Express your compassion. If you have strong feelings of outrage, compassion, empathy for her pain, do share them. There is probably nothing more comforting than a genuine human response. Just make sure your feelings don’t overwhelm hers.
- Respect the time and space it takes to heal. Healing is a slow process that can’t be hurried.
- Encourage the survivor to get support. In addition to offering your own caring, encourage her to reach out to others. (See the chapter “Working with a Counselor” in The Courage To Heal)
- Get help if the survivor is suicidal. Most survivors are not suicidal, but sometimes the pain of childhood abuse is so devastating that women want to kill themselves. If you are close to a survivor who is suicidal, get help immediately (see the sections “Dealing with Her Pain, Grief, and Depression,” and “If Your Partner Is Suicidal or You’re Afraid She Might Be” in The Courage To Heal)
- Accept that there will very likely be major changes in your relationship with the survivor as she heals. She is changing, and as she does, you may need to change in response.
- Resist seeing the survivor as a victim. Continue to see her as a strong, courageous woman who is reclaiming her own life.