How to Help a Friend
What Might Happen After Experiencing Sexual Violence
Every person responds differently to experiences of harm. It is critical that one does not make any assumptions about how a survivor will respond to their experiences nor any assumptions about what will feel supportive to them. Not all survivors experience noticeable reactions. Some experience responses including, but not limited to: trouble sleeping, trouble focusing, flashbacks, changes in eating patterns, anxiety, depression, shame, or fear. If you have experienced harm, know that there is no “normal” way to respond to harm and that your response is valid. If you want to learn about how to support someone who has experienced harm, please see below.
Supporting Someone Who Has Experienced Harm
- Believe them.
- Listen attentively and validate their emotions.Leave space for them to share if they would like to and offer all of your attention if/when they do. Let them know that the emotions they may be feeling are valid. If they share that they blame themselves for the harm they have experienced, let them know that it is not their fault. Validation can take the form of reinforcing phrases such as, “I believe you,” “thank you for sharing,” “I hear you,” or “I’m listening.” You can also communicate that you are listening in nonverbal ways like nodding your head or making eye contact.
- Let your friend guide the conversation.Your friend should have control over the type of conversation they are looking to have with you and control over what they do or do not share in that conversation. Do not pressure them to share details with you. Let them know that you are here to support them in whatever way feels best for them. You should allow your friend to name their own experience with the language that feels most comfortable to them. While you may consider their situation to be rape, they may prefer to use a different term to characterize their experience and you should follow their lead.
- Let your friend decide what next steps feel best for them.Do not pressure your friend to talk to someone or pursue a resource. Ask them if they would like to explore available resources. If so, support them in accessing information, but do not pressure them to take any steps. What feels empowering, supportive, or healing to one person might not feel that way to another. Avoid inserting your own projections of what you would do.
- Be honest about what type of support you can offer.Some types of support you may be able to offer could include a listening ear, accompaniment to an appointment or to a class, a ride somewhere, a place to sleep if they are feeling unsafe at home, a meal, etc. Again, ask them what they would find most supportive and do not assume that they want any type of support. Additionally, always ask your friend for permission before touching or hugging them.
- Keep your conversation confidential.Let your friend decide whom else they do or do not want to tell. Do not tell anyone else unless your friend asks you to.
- Seek support for yourself if you would like to.Sometimes those who support survivors would also like support. Your wellness is also a priority and you deserve care. Confidential resources, such as the Brandeis Rape Crisis Center, can offer a place to talk about what you are experiencing in your supportive role.