How to Help a Loved One

Most people want to help a friend or loved one when they have experienced trauma, but many times don’t know what to say. Below are some things to consider when listening/talking to a survivor of interpersonal violence:

  • Listen. Often a person in crisis just needs someone to hear their story. You can show you’re really listening to your friend or loved one by nodding, looking them in the eye, saying “uh-huh”, etc. Don’t try to fix the problem unless explicitly asked to do so.
  • Believe. One of the most important things you can do is to communicate that you believe what your friend is telling you. Survivors often worry that they will not be believed or have been told by the perpetrator that no one will believe them. When someone shares their story or experience with you, you have the ability to influence how they will proceed. If you express disbelief, they may not feel comfortable reaching out for any other kind of help.
  • Help to clarify what you think they are saying. Listen carefully to your friend or loved one and then tell them what you think they said about their feelings. They may be talking about their emotions in a way that seems jumbled. You can help by sorting out and repeating back what was said. Say things like: “It sounds like…” or “What I hear you saying is…” or “I think I’m hearing you say…” If you have questions about what they’re feeling (not the details of the situation) feel free to ask them to help you understand.
  • Let your friend decide what they want to talk about. Don’t push them to talk about something if they are not comfortable. If you feel you need to ask questions ask gently, so they don’t feel that you’re prying. Ask general questions, e.g., “Do you want to talk about what happened?” rather than, “How were you raped?”
  • Avoid asking accusatory questions.The perpetrator is to blame for what happened. You may feel angry and frustrated about what happened, but don’t take it out on your friend or loved one. Don’t ask questions about why they did (or didn’t do) a certain thing. Survivors do the best they can in confusing, terrifying, or life-threatening situations. If you want or need to understand the mechanisms of trauma, please call our office.
  • Don’t make decisions for them. The experience of an incident of interpersonal violence is one of a forced absence of control. You can help them regain power and control over their own life by letting them make their own decisions about what to do next. Help them get information on what all of the options are, but let them make the decisions. You may think that you know the best thing to do, but they are truly the experts on themselves and their experience.
  • Show that you care. Remind them that you care for them and this crisis hasn’t changed that fact. You can show your affection by hugging (check your friend is okay to be hugged even if they previously have been), telling your friend that you love them, or even just sitting quietly together. You may not feel that you are doing much, but your presence can mean a great deal.
  • Remind them to have self-compassion and self-care. Your friend or loved one has been through a very difficult experience. Remind them to be good to themselves. If they have trouble identifying ways to take care of themselves, help them brainstorm ways they have enjoyed themselves or felt relaxed in the past.
  • Take care of yourself. It can be very upsetting and traumatic when a friend or loved one is victimized. You may feel powerless, guilty, shocked, angry, scared, or any number of other emotions. These feelings are normal, natural responses. Be sure to be kind to yourself and get help managing these emotions. Our office offers support services to people supporting survivors as well.

 What to say to someone who has survived interpersonal violence…

  • “No one deserves to be treated that way. This was not your fault. You did not deserve to be ___________(hit, assaulted, treated that way)”
  • “Whatever you did to survive the situation was the right thing to do.”
  • “I believe you. It was not your fault. This was something that someone did TO you.”
  • “Regardless of ____________, (how you were dressed, how much you drank, if you were flirting, what you did prior to the sexual assault, etc) there is no excuse for sexual assault, violence, stalking etc. You did not deserve this.”
  • “That must have been a very unsettling /scary /confusing /uncomfortable /frightening experience.”
  • “You are not crazy. You are reacting normally to a difficult situation.”
  • “It doesn’t make a difference if you consented to do other things sexually with this person. You said “no” to this part, and that person did not respect you. You have the right to change your mind at anytime when you are with someone.”

What to avoid saying to someone who has survived interpersonal violence… 

  • Why didn’t you/You should have/You shouldn’t have/I told you to/I told you not to… | Survivors already experience an immense amount of self-blame. Try to focus on how they can stay or be safe going forward.
  • You have to… | It’s very important that survivors are allowed to make their own choices and decisions. You don’t know how your plan of action may turn out and you don’t want to harm your relationship by pushing a suggestion they are uncomfortable with.
  • I would…| Any time you share what you would or would not theoretically do in a situation, a person hears a suggestion for what they should do even if you don’t mean it that way.
  • I’m sorry | This is very culturally ingrained in our community. It’s a natural first response! However, almost everyone answers hearing “I’m sorry” with “It’s ok” which interpersonal violence certainly is not.
  • I’m sure it was just a misunderstanding. 
  • Everything will be ok. | As much as you might want to tell them this to make them feel better, it’s not a guarantee. Interpersonal violence can be a life changing situation and their definition of “ok” may be that everything will go back to the way it was. Try not to promise things you can’t personally deliver on.
  • I just can’t see them doing that. | Perpetrators are often very charismatic, funny, “normal” seeming individuals. The face they show to you may very well not be the face they show at home or to your friend or loved one.
  • What were you wearing? | What a person is wearing or not wearing does not have any bearing on someone else’s choice to harm them.
  • How much did you/they have to drink? | Alcohol does not cause interpersonal violence and blame should never be placed on the survivor.
  • I’m gonna kill/hurt them | This may feel like a protective statement to say, but it incites violence and potentially feelings of fear or obligation to slow you down. When a survivor shares their story, their experience and emotions need to be most important.

Referring someone to the Phoenix Center at Auraria

  • “We’re really fortunate to have a center on the Auraria campus to help students/staff/faculty with this kind of concern. They can assist you in accessing resources, determining your next steps. What do you think about calling them?”
  • “We have a center here on campus called the Phoenix Center at Auraria. They are trained to understand the reactions that you may experience. Have you thought about calling them? Would you like me to get you the number or call for you?”
  • “The Phoenix Center at Auraria can assist you in getting connected with other services on and off campus to make sure you are getting what you need after this serious situation.”
  • “Do you want me to call the Phoenix Center at Auraria for you?”
  • “Here is their 24/7 helpline phone number – 303-556-CALL (2255)”

 

Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. 2007. “How can I help my friend?”. Harvard University: Boston, MA

How To Help A Friend

Below are some things to consider when listening/talking to a survivor of gender violence:

Listen. Often a person in crisis just needs someone to hear their story. You can show you’re really listening to your friend by nodding, looking your friend in the eye, saying “uh-huh”, etc.

Believe. One of the most important things you can do is to communicate that you believe what your friend is telling you. Survivors often worry that they will not be believed or have been told by the perpetrator that no one will believe them.

Help to clarify what you think your friend is saying. Listen carefully to your friend and then tell them what you think they said about their feelings. Your friend may be talking about her/his emotions in a way that seems jumbled. You can help by sorting out and repeating back what was said. Say things like: “It sounds like…” or “What I hear you saying is…”

Let your friend decide what they want to talk about. Don’t push your friend to talk about something if they are not comfortable. If you feel you need to ask questions ask gently, so your friend doesn’t feel that you’re prying. Ask general questions, e.g., “Do you want to talk about what happened?” rather than, “How were your raped?”

Avoid asking accusing questions.The perpetrator is to blame for what happened. You may feel angry and frustrated about what happened, but don’t take it out on your friend. Don’t ask questions about why your friend did (or didn’t do) a certain thing. Survivors do the best they can with confusing, terrifying, or life-threatening situations.

Don’t make decisions for your friend. The experience of a gender violence incident is one of having complete control taken away. You can help your friend regain power over her/his life by letting your friend make her/his own decisions about what to do next. Help your friend get information on what all of the options are, but let her/him make the decisions.

Show that you care. Remind your friend that you care, and that this crisis hasn’t changed that fact. You can show your affection by hugging (check your friend is okay to be hugged), telling your friend that you love her/him, or even just sitting quietly together. You may not feel that you are doing much, but your presence can mean a great deal.

Remind your friend to have self-compassion and self-care. Your friend has been through a very difficult experience. Remind your friend to be good to herself/himself.

Take care of yourself. It can be very upsetting and traumatic when a friend is victimized. You may feel powerless, guilty, shocked, angry, or scared. These feelings are normal, natural responses. Be sure to be kind to yourself and get help managing these emotions.

Information taken from Harvard University’s “How can I help my friend” publication. The Office of Sexual Assault Response and Prevention. 2007

How To Help A Loved One

Finding out that a loved one has been assaulted is an extremely difficult thing to hear. No one wants to know that someone they care about was a victim of a violent crime. It is important to remember, that sexual assault and dating/domestic abuse are violence crimes. Sexual assault is not about sex or desire, it is about power and control. The person who is assaulted is never to blame, regardless of the circumstances. Feelings family members may have on hearing that a child, sister, brother, aunt, mother, uncle has been assaulted can range from anger to despair. Please know that there are resources out there to assist you. Below are some tips when supporting a loved one who has been assaulted.

1. Believe her or him! The greatest fear of rape survivors is that they will not be believed or that their experience will be minimized as not important.

2. Let the survivor know that whatever they did to survive the assault was the best thing to do. Validate that it must have been extremely scary.

3. Listen! Let her or him talk. Find a quiet place. Be patient.

4. Help her or him organize her or his thoughts, but let the survivor make her or his own decisions about how to proceed. The survivor needs to regain the feeling of control. Allow her or him to do that.

5. Reinforce that the rape was not her or his fault. Avoid questions that seem to blame the survivor’s actions. The only person who deserves the blame is the person who decided to commit the assault.

6. Give the survivor a secure place to sleep and offer companionship once she or he returns to her or his living quarters. Often the immediate response for a family member is to protect the survivor and hold her or him close (physically and metaphorically). It is really important that you resist this urge and let the survivor determine next steps.

7. Suggest calling a professionally trained rape crisis counselor or advocate.

8. If your loved one discloses the assault to you soon after it has happened, encourage her or him to preserve evidence. Caution her or him not to shower, eat, wash clothes or brush teeth. Forensic exams can be completed up to 96 hours after the assault, sometimes even up to 7 days later.

9. Get him or her medical assistance if she or he so chooses.

10. Comfort her or him and let her or him know that you will support them.

11. Help him or her get psychological and legal help if she or he so chooses.

12. Be available. Give your time and attention each time you are sought out.

13. Understand that you may start to feel stressed or frustrated as you support your loved one. Be sure to seek assistance for yourself too so that you have someone to talk to about how this has affected you. It is important that you do not take your anger, frustration, or sadness at the situation out on your loved one, as this can be very hurtful for both of you.

Secondary Trauma
Often when you support someone who has been through a scary and traumatic experience, it is possible for you as the helper to take on some of the trauma response. This is known as “secondary trauma” or “vicarious trauma”. It is important when supporting someone through the emotional aftermath of an assault, that you don’t forget about yourself. Take the time you need to maintain balance and self care.