How to Respond to a Survivor:
When someone you care about tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted or abused, it may be hard to know how to respond. A supportive reaction can make all the difference, but it is not always easy to know what to say or do. Encouraging words and phrases can avoid judgment and show support for the survivor.
Consider the following ways of showing support:
- Listen, be there, and communicate without judgment. If you are not sure what to say, consider using some of the phrases below.
- If the survivor seeks medical attention or plans to report, offer to be there. Your presence can provide the support they need, but respect their decision if they don’t want you to be there, or would prefer to have a victim advocate present.
- Encourage the survivor to get support and information from professional resources like Safe Helpline (www.safehelpline.org) or from some of the other resources available to military survivors, but realize that only they can make the decision to get help. You can also contact Safe Helpline yourself to talk directly with staff to get suggestions and information on how to support a survivor. You can also complete our self-paced programs for more information.
- Be patient. Remember, there is no timetable for recovering from trauma. Avoid putting pressure on them to engage in activities they aren’t ready to do yet. Understand that there will be good days and setbacks that may be frustrating for you and the survivor.
- Encourage them to practice good self-care during this difficult time, and remember to take care of yourself as well so you can be there for the survivor.
Consider the following phrases:
- “I’m sorry this happened.”
- Acknowledge that the experience has affected their life. Phrases such as “This must be really tough for you,” and, “I’m so glad you are sharing this with me,” help to communicate empathy.
- “It’s not your fault.”
- Survivors may blame themselves, especially if they know the perpetrator personally. Remind the survivor, as often as needed, that they are not to blame; regardless of any action they may or may not have taken.
- “I believe you.”
- A survivor may feel ashamed; concerned that they won’t be believed, or worried they’ll be blamed. Leave any “why” questions or investigations to the experts—your job is to support this person. Be careful not to interpret calmness as a sign that the event did not occur—everyone responds differently. The best thing you can do is to believe them.
- “You are not alone.”
- Remind the survivor that you are there for them and willing to listen to their story. Remind them there are other people in their life who care and that there are service providers who will be able to support them as they recover from the experience. Let them know that healing is a process that can take time, and you are there for them whenever they need you.
- "Are you open to seeking medical attention?”
- The survivor might need medical attention, even if the event happened a while ago. You can support the survivor by offering to accompany them or find more information. It’s okay to ask directly, “Are you open to seeking medical care?”
- “Are you considering making a report?”
- You should never pressure a survivor into making a report. The decision to report should be entirely up to the survivor. Reporting what happened can be a difficult experience for a survivor, and may not be the right decision for everyone. If they choose to report, offering to accompany them can be of great help.
- “You can trust me.”
- If a survivor opens up to you, it means they trust you. Thank them for confiding in you and reassure them that you can be trusted and will respect their privacy. Always ask the survivor before you share their story with others. If a minor discloses a situation of sexual abuse, you are required in most situations to report the crime. Let the minor know that you have to tell another adult, and ask them if they’d like to be involved. To learn more about the laws in your state, click here.
- “This doesn’t change how I think of you.”
- Some survivors are concerned that sharing what happened will change the way other people see them, especially a partner. Reassure the survivor that surviving sexual violence doesn’t change the way you think or feel about them.
Phrases to Avoid:
- “Why/What/How questions.”
- Avoid questioning what the survivor is telling you. Having someone question whether or not a person was actually violated, assaulted, or raped can be counterproductive. Also avoid questioning aspects of the event. Don’t ask “What were you doing out so late?” or “How were you dressed?” It is never the survivor’s fault that they were assaulted no matter the circumstances. Leave the fact finding for the authorities-your role is to support the survivor and not to gather all the facts and determine whether a crime took place.
- “It wasn’t the perpetrator's fault.”
- The perpetrator’s actions are inexcusable. Any and all excuses for the perpetrator are detrimental to the survivor’s long-term mental health and can compromise the trusting and supportive relationship you have with the survivor
- “You have to report/go to the hospital/etc.”
- Do not tell the survivor what they must do. Also, never make the survivor feel responsible for the perpetrator’s future actions (“You have to report this if you don’t want him/her to do this to anyone else?”)You can suggest what course of action they can take, particularly if they ask for your advice. Suggest resources they may use or offer to explore resources available to them. Empower the survivor.
- “It could have been worse.”
- There is no hierarchy of pain. Remember that one kind of rape or assault isn’t more or less “legitimate” than another. Don’t anticipate the ways in which a particular type of violence will affect a survivor, and don’t expect that one is necessarily more traumatic than another.
- Question why the survivor has decided to tell you now, even if it has been months or years since the assault.
- Individuals heal at their own pace. Be grateful that they opened up to you now, and validate the strength that it must have taken for them to survive the assault.
- Share the survivor’s story without their permission.
- The survivor has trusted you and betraying that trust often creates negative reactions.
- Make choices for the survivor.
- Do not take matters into your own hands. The survivor is the one who will have to deal with repercussions of your actions. It is not your choice to file a report, seek retribution, confront the perpetrator, etc.
- Expect the survivor to cope or react a certain way.
- Everyone reacts to trauma differently.
For more in-depth information on ways to support a survivor and understand what happens after a sexual assault take the Safe Helpline self-guided educational program: How to Support a Survivor.