Information & Support for Family & Friends
Sexual violence and abuse can also have significant impact on those who love and care for the survivor. It can be very upsetting for you to see the affect that this has had on someone you care about, and you may be unsure how best to help. You may feel very distressed, angry, overwhelmed, or confused. Different people cope differently with the experience of sexual violence, and your relative or friend may be acting in ways you did not expect or don’t know how to deal with.
The most important thing is for a survivor of rape or sexual abuse, whether it happened recently or a very long time ago, to be listened to, believed and not judged. By listening, believing and not judging, you will be supporting your loved one deal with the trauma in their own way. It’s important not to pressure them into doing or talking about anything they are not ready to; sexual violence or abuse takes away control and it is very important that you recognise the importance of survivors making their own decisions, in their own time.
Listen to what s/he has to say in their own time. It might not be easy to start talking about something that has been hidden for a long time. Also, the abuser may have threatened them to stay silent.
Believe. People rarely lie about rape or sexual abuse. It is important to believe what they are saying and to let them know that you do.
Respect their feelings. People can experience a variety of feelings following rape or sexual abuse. These can include: shock, denial, physical reactions (disturbed sleep, loss of appetite, need to constantly wash, nausea), post traumatic stress disorder, anger, self blame, nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks, self harming, use of drugs or alcohol to numb feelings, eating disorders.
Respect their decisions. Some people want to talk about what happened, others don’t. You might feel it would help for her/him to open up and talk, but it’s important to let them go at their own pace. Reassure them you are there for them if and when they are ready to talk. Some people want to report, others don’t. Again it is important to support them to do what they feel is right for them at that time.
Remember it is not their fault - no-one asks to be abused or deserves it and cannot be blamed for being unable to prevent the abuse. Don’t ask them why they didn’t fight back – to freeze is a common reaction to a very frightening situation and a person’s reaction is often entirely outwith their control. It can be very upsetting to have someone question their response as the person may themselves not understand why they responded as they did.
Recognise the courage it takes for someone to speak. It takes a great deal of courage to face up to fears and to talk about any experience of sexual violence. It is important for friends and family members to acknowledge the courage it has taken for someone to speak about what happened.
Don’t tell them to forget about it. It is unhelpful to say, “It happened a long time ago, why does it suddenly bother you now?” Healing can take time and some people block or try to forget traumatic events. This is a way of coping with what has happened. Remembering can be triggered by events such as the birth of a baby, a TV programme, marriage, changing job, starting a new relationship and so on.
Don’t ask why they didn’t say anything sooner. If it happened when they were young they may have tried to tell but been ignored or disbelieved. They may have been threatened or been too frightened to say anything. Most people do try to tell someone at some time.
Don’t tell them what to do. They need to be in control of the decisions about matters which affect them. You can help them to explore options available.
Don’t pressure them into doing or talking about things they are not ready to face. When they are ready they will speak
You may feel helpless as s/he tries to cope with what has happened, but you are not. You can play an active part in their healing by giving them the space to deal with what has happened, in their own time.
You may experience some of the same emotions as the person who was raped or abused. You may be in shock after finding out about the rape or you may experience anger and rage. You may try to deny that it happened or be confused – and this may last for many days or even weeks.
You may feel that you want justice for what has happened but if s/he does not want to contact the police or tell anyone about the rape, you should respect their feelings.
RASASH can offer short term telephone or face to face support to non-abusing family and friends of survivors. This can help you understand and deal with your own feelings as well as help you to feel more able to support your loved one.
Call our Support Line on 03330 066909 (Mon, Wed, Fri 9.30 - 1300, Tues and Thurs 1300-1630) to speak to someone to find out more, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You may find the Rape Crisis Scotland publication Information for Family & Friends useful