How to Help a Survivor

Safety - First and most important is safety. If someone is suicidal do not ignore or downplay it. Always take it seriously. Take immediate steps by calling your local emergency room, crisis hotline, 911, police or law enforcement agency.

Believe the person – Sounds simple enough – except when you consider that a large amount of victims of female offenders report that when they told others about the abuse they were not believed. By not believing them and listening, the survivor may be further traumatized.

Don’t Minimize – This goes along with believing the survivor. Don’t try to minimize or rationalize what you are told happened to them. The survivor is trusting you by telling you-respect that trust by believing and not minimizing the abuse. When you try to comfort a survivor by attempting to explain how the abuser must not have really meant to cause harm, that it was a misunderstanding or misinterpretation, or that the abuser seems like such a nice person, this not only does not help, it makes the situation worse. Telling someone “I know how you feel” is another common mistake to try to avoid. This is the survivor’s story and only the survivor can tell you how it felt. Listen.

Don’t Maximize – Maximizing is the other extreme of minimizing abuse. Maximizing happens when the victim has to listen to someone go on and on, telling the survivor how truly awful this is and how it has scarred them for life, and they will never feel “normal” again, or enjoy a sexual relationship again, etc. etc. As with minimizing, this not only does not help, it can make things worse and can cause more harm. The survivor is the only one who truly knows and, while there may be common themes with survivors of abuse, the experience and aftermath is different for each person. Well-meaning caring people can cause harm by doing this. This does not mean act like nothing happened or downplay the abuse. What it does mean is to remain calm and listen to what the person is telling you, without adding to it. Many people are quite resilient. Many survivors, with time, help, and good support, can recover from trauma.

FaultSexual abuse is not the survivor’s fault. This is a key element to helping someone recover and heal.

Blame/Shame – Avoid statements like “If only you had….then this might not have happened” and other similar statements, even if you think it is true. The past is just that, the past, and it can not be changed now. Making such blaming statements only contributes to guilt, shame, and hurt the survivor is experiencing-often times, it makes it worse.

Don’t push/probe – All too often the common thinking is that “you need to get it all out and talk about it”. This statement is misleading and thus can be harmful. Don’t push someone to talk about their experience more than what is offered. Just be patient and listen to what they are willing to tell you and be as supportive as possible. Many times this means you might not be able to say anything more than you are sorry this happened and you will be there to listen and help as much as you are capable. While listening, being non-judgmental is crucial. You are offering the gift of listening, not trying to judge what happened or if it happened. Just knowing that someone is there to listen in a non-judgemental way can be a priceless gift for some people. Knowing that someone is going to listen and not try to “fix it” or “analyze it” on the spot can make your support a refuge for the survivor.

Professional help – Know that a good number of survivors may need the help of a professional or professionals. Understand that this can be both a scary and frustrating experience for the person who reaches out for help. They may have good experiences, bad experiences, and so-so experiences with professionals. Finding the right professional(s) can often be a difficult process. It takes time for the survivor to feel safe enough to share with a therapist. Sometimes, the survivor and therapist just aren’t a good fit-be patient while the survivor tries to find the right therapist for his/her needs. Having a steady support person or persons can be very helpful to the survivor during the process of seeking professional help.

Patience – Saying “be patient” is easy enough, but it is another thing all together when someone you care about is hurting and the help can not seem to come fast enough! Even more taxing is when the person who is hurting is involved in self-destructive activities/behaviors (see the first one on this list) such as cutting themselves, drug and alcohol abuse, etc. But understand that being a steady influence in the survivor’s life can literally be a life saver.

Education – Educating yourself as much as possible about sexual abuse by a female perpetrator will help you understand what the survivor is going through, but also demonstrates a true interest in the survivor’s journey to healing. If you are here reading this, you are likely already trying to educate yourself, but this site is just the beginning. There is a much more available to help you. Even if you are an abuse survivor yourself, you cannot ever really understand what the survivor is going through because each person and each situation is unique unto itself. Educating yourself helps to understand AND it can help you to understand why projecting some of your views and beliefs into the situation is not always helpful. For instance, telling someone they should “honor thy mother” because she gave birth to them and “deserves” to at least visit or see the grand kids, etc., is not helpful to the survivor and is not truly focusing on helping the survivor heal. With education you can understand why in this case it is wrong and can be harmful. Only the survivor can ultimately know and decide what is best for them.

Supportive – Be supportive, but not controlling or enabling. Sometime, this can be a hard line to walk. Offering to go with the survivor to a first appointment is supportive. Forcing, demanding, insisting, or coercing the survivor to seek professional help is controlling and enabling. This is their journey. When someone is sexually abused, their opportunity to choose is removed and their “no” is not heard. This is why it is so important allow the survivor to make their own decisions and practice control in their own lives. Encourage them to make their own informed decisions.

Heal thyself – Remember that you can’t help anyone if you don’t take care of yourself first. This is not a selfish act but rather an act of caring. Trying to help someone through the aftermath of abuse can be difficult and tiring at times and there is no shame in admitting it. Sexual abuse is hard to talk about and it’s hard to listen to some of the terrible acts committed. Secondary or vicarious trauma can occur from helping the survivor. It is important for both you and the person you are trying to help that you make the time to take care of yourself. Just like the person you are trying to help has the right to take care of their needs, so do you. By doing so, you will find you are a much more effective helper-everyone may benefit and feel better.


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