Supporting someone who has been abused

You can also download our Advice for Friends and Relatives leaflet below.

If you are supporting someone who has been raped or abused, you may well need support yourself.  SRASAC is able to support you in this.  We recognise how important the support of partners, friends, relatives and carers can be for someone to feel back in control and safe.  It is important for people to be listened to and believed.  Survivors may have been recently attacked or dealing with experiences that happened many years ago, sometimes in their childhood.

We have tried to offer ideas for how you can positively help a survivor feel back in control of their life again after experiencing sexual abuse.  This information has been written for women and girls who have experienced rape or sexual abuse, but the ideas offered will still be helpful for those supporting male survivors and is not only relevant to women.  It has also been written with the assumption that the abuser is a male, but we do recognise that women can be abusers too.

Survivors have individual responses to their experiences.  What always seems to help is having someone around who will listen and not rush them to ‘get better’ or ‘forget about it’, someone who will try to understand how they are feeling and what they want in the way of support.

What is always essential is being believed and feeling sure that the person told believes them.  Whatever the circumstances of the abuse, there is always one dominant feature – that it was something forced on the victim, against their will and that it deliberately took control from them, ignoring what they wanted.  The use of force, however physically damaging, is always a violent act, causing distress and humiliation.  To help them regain control over their life and begin to rebuild a sense of worth, it is essential to recognise how upsetting and frightening it is to be forced against your will in this way, especially as it is often accompanied by further threats.

It is everyone’s basic human right to be free from threat, harassment or attack.

Anyone who has been raped or sexually abusedmay lose their feelings of safety and trust.  With your help they need to begin to rebuild those feelings of control, trust and self-worth.

Believe them– people rarely lie about sexual abuse or rape.  Why would they?  It is important that they know you believe what they are saying.  Recognise the courage it takes for a survivor to speak.  It takes a great deal of courage to talk.

The facts show very clearly that rape and sexual abuse happens to people of all ages, of all appearance and in any circumstances (at home or out and about).  Whatever the circumstances, no-one should be forced against their will, without their consent, to any sexual abuse or violence.  The only way to create greater safety for everyon ein the long term is to challenge the behaviour of those who choose to rape or sexually abuse; not to blame the victim.

It is not the victim's fault.  Because of the many myths about women who ‘ask for it’ or provoke assault, a girl or woman may already be feeling partly responsible for what has happened.  She may be anxious to tell people for fear they will blame her or not believe her.  Male survivors also fear telling someone about the attack.  No one asks to be abused and they cannot be blamed for not preventing the abuse.  It is important to help the survivor to place the blame where it belongs – with the person who abused them.

Listen to what they have to say and let them take their time.  It may not be easy to start talking about an event that they have kept silent about for a long time.  It may be difficult because they may have been told not to tell by the abuser at the time.

Listen and try to understand why they were unable to prevent the abuse happening.  They may have been forced by fear, they may have been unsuspecting and trusting, they may have been threatened or physically attacked, they may have feared that worse would happen if they resisted.

Listen to the reasons for why they are telling you now.  They may have been scared of your reaction, may have felt ashamed or embarrassed to tell you, may have been protecting you from the upset of knowing or may have chosen to think it through first or talk with those less personally involved.  Some people block out or try to forget traumatic events.  This can be a way of dealing with the trauma of abuse.  A survivor may remember after a trigger event such as the birth of a baby, a TV programme, starting a new relationship or the death of an abuser.

Try not to over simplify what has happened by saying it is not very bad, ‘never mind’, ‘forget it’.  Let them say how they feel and work through it in their own time.

Reassure them that you will give them support and give them time to work things through.  Make it clear that you will be around to talk now or in the future, and help trust that you will not push then into expressing things they don't feel ready to.  They need to feel in control of their own decisions about matters that affect them.  You can help them explore the options that are available to them.  Ask if they would like to talk to someone on our helpline (0808 812 0013) or whether they would like to talk to one of our specialist counsellors.  Offer to help them organise this,  but only if they would like you to do so, without pressurising them.

Try not to make her decisions for them.  Sexual abuse usually makes someone feel invaded, changed and out of control.  Whatever happened, they didn’t want it to.  However much they tried to get the abuser to stop, it may not have worked – the abuser will not have listened to them or cared about how they were feeling.  Try to imagine how this feels and try not to do what makes you feel better rather than them – listen to what they want and try to show you care about how they feel.  As part of them rebuilding trust and strength, it is crucial that they are able to make their own decisions and regain influence over what happens to them.  It is common for friends and relatives, often very anxious and distressed themselves by what has happened, to step in and be too protective and watchful, or to start treating the survivor of the abuse very differently, such as deciding things for them.  While this is understandable, our experience shows that it can add to their frustration.  Ask them what help they want from you and try to do what they suggest.  This will help them to build up their sense of trust.

Help them to feel safe and take part in things again, but only at their own pace and in the way that feels best for them.  Knowing that they can talk to you about feeling unsafe, and ask for your companionship when they need it will be reassuring for them as they try to tackle difficult things.

Try not to touch them unexpectedly, come up behind them etc.  in a way that reminds them of the assault.  They may want to be held and comforted, or to be left until they feel safe – ask what feels best for them.  Don’t feel offended if they find it difficult to be emotionally or (if you are their partner) sexually close after the assault.  It is not that they feel you might assault them, but that it recalls their feelings of violation and fear.  Encourage them to say how they want to be held or touched, what helps them to feel safe and comforted and how they want to spend their time with you.  If you find that there is an emotional distance between you following the assault, try not to put pressure on them to forget quickly, or to blame them for the way they are feeling or acting.  Feeling that you are listening and responding will greatly help them to re-establish feelings of closeness and trust.  Seek support for yourself from someone who may understand.  Feeling guilt or pressure will only make it harder for the survivor to work through the experience.

Be aware of not directing your anger and frustration about the assault at the survivor.  They will already be worried that what has happened to them will have upset and worried those close to them.  Reassure them that you know what happened to them isn’t their fault and if you do feel anger make it clear that it is directed towards the abuser or those who assaulted them and not towards the survivor.  Remember that threatening to take the law into your own hands is not helpful.  It can make them feel even more unsafe, it can make them distressed to see you so upset and it could greatly worry them that you might get into trouble or get hurt.  It also, once again, can make them feel out of control of the situation and that what they wants is again being ignored.  You may need to ask your friends or a trusted outside person for support or ideas about how to deal with your own understandable feelings of frustration.  If you do this, make sure the survivor's confidentiality is respected, as always.

You are not to blame for what has happened, because you weren’t with them, hadn’t protected them etc.  As we said at the beginning the only person to blame for the abuse is the abuser.

Try not to speak for them unless they particularly want you to.  When friends, the doctor, the police etc ask them how they are feeling, always let them speak for themselves, if they can.  If they want time to talk to someone who isn’t emotionally close to them, always make it clear that they can chose whether you are with them or not.

Don’t expect too much of yourself.  The survivor may need different types of support from different people.  No one person can do everything for them.  It can help you too to know that they can go to other people for support if they choose to do so.  Sometimes women at Rape Crisis or trusted friends and colleagues can help in ways that those closest to the survivor cannot.

Show that you are listening to them and that you:

  • Believe them
  • Don’t blame them
  • Respect them
  • Want to help them regain control over their life

You won’t be able to magically make everything better straight away, but, as we have suggested, being listened to and respected, and knowing that someone cares about them will help to heal things.