It can be hard to find the right words to comfort a family member who’s been sexually assaulted. You want them to feel supported and safe without feeling judged, but even the most well-meaning loved one can stumble. However, there are ways to navigate these tough conversations to help survivors heal. And because April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, it’s imperative now more than ever to create a safe space for them to share their stories.
But why do some of us struggle with finding the right things to say in the first place? Well, clinical psychologist and author of Joy From Fear, Dr. Carla Marie Manly, explains that loved ones are afraid they’re going to say the wrong thing. “Even the most well-meaning and well-informed people can fear saying something that will be harmful or hurtful. A deep fear of ‘getting it wrong’ often prevents people from reaching out to offer support. As well, some people fear that matters such as sexual assault are ‘too private’ and worry that questions or comments would be seen as invasive or inappropriate,” says Dr. Manly.
Even though it’s uncomfortable to have these kinds of conversations, it’s critical for survivors to receive thoughtful words of support to avoid making the trauma worse. For instance, the Start By Believing campaign states on its website that “most victims of sexual assault never report the crime to law enforcement, often because of the responses they receive from friends and family members…Knowing how to respond is critical, because a negative response can worsen the trauma and foster an environment where perpetrators face no consequences for their crimes.”
To better prepare thoughtful responses and foster healthier environments for family members who have been sexually assaulted, we connected with Dr. Manly to find out what loved ones should and shouldn’t say when someone decides to open about their experience. Because at the end of the day, it’s important for survivors to feel supported and comforted by the ones they love.
1 Offer to listen or do activities together
It can be incredibly scary for the sexual assault survivor to open up about their experience, no matter how long it has been since the incident. That’s why it’s vital to listen patiently and offer to spend quality time with them if that’s something of interest to the survivor. “[Maintain] kind, gentle eye contact [and] offer simple, direct words of support such as, ‘I’m aware of what happened to you. I’m here if you need me, whether to talk, go on a quiet walk, or watch a movie together. In fact, if you’d like me to sit with you now, I have plenty of time.’ Given that sexual assault is a serious boundary violation and often results in intense feelings, such as shame, fear, embarrassment, anxiety, self-doubt, and even self-loathing, it is important to listen carefully without judgment,” says Dr. Manly.
2 Inform them that you respect their boundaries
While you may assume that providing a hug or lightly touching their hand will provide support, it could actually make your loved one feel incredibly uncomfortable and trigger negative emotions. It’s best to be cautious about your physical interactions by asking if you can hug them and respecting their wishes if they prefer not to. “After talking—no matter how long or short the conversation—you may find it appropriate to add, ‘Would you like a hug?’ This is important, for a victim of sexual assault may both fear and crave reassuring physical contact from a loved one. If the individual declines a hug, simply say, ‘No worries. I respect your boundaries. I’m here whenever you need me.'”
3 Mirror their feelings and experience
If you’re unsure what to say to your family member about their sexual assault, mirroring their feelings and experiences can provide support and comfort. “One of the safest and most effective ways to validate the victim’s feelings and experiences is to simply restate the survivor’s feelings or experience in your own words. This technique, called mirroring or reflective listening, allows the victim to feel heard and understood on a very deep level,” explains Dr. Manly.
For instance, simply stating, “I’m so sorry to hear that you feel scared and angry. It’s completely okay and understandable to feel this way because of [insert experience].” It might not feel like you’re helping them, but simply validating their emotions can go a long way.
4 Provide guidance with kind words of support
It can be easy to want to stop and fix everything the minute you hear that a family member has been sexually assaulted. But you have to remember that this isn’t about you. It’s about trying to make them feel as supported and loved as possible—and that means respecting their wishes when it comes to taking the next steps.
“When a family member has been sexually assaulted, a loved one can provide guidance with simple, kind words of support. For example, a family member could say, ‘I am happy to locate a therapist who specializes in healing from sexual assault; would you like me to get a few names for you?’ or ‘I would be happy to accompany you to the doctor and even to make the appointment for you. It would be a good idea to have a physical exam done to ensure your well-being,'” says Dr. Manly. “When a family member offers guidance, it’s important not to force or pressure the victim.”
5 Do check on their mental or physical health
“It’s a good idea to let the victim be the guide as to the depth and nature of the discussion. The listener can feel safe in asking basic, open-ended questions, such as, ‘How have you been sleeping?’ ‘How safe are you feeling?’ or ‘How are you faring in the anxiety realm?’ Follow the victim’s lead as to their comfort level; this will allow the victim to open up at a speed and depth that feels non-threatening [for them],” says Dr. Manly.
No matter how long it’s been since the assault happened, it’s always a good idea to ask the survivor these questions. Most people may assume everything is fine when it could actually take months or even years to overcome an experience like this.
6 Don’t place any responsibility on them
Asking victim-blaming questions will instantly make your loved one feel alone, and may even convince them that the assault was their fault. “Avoid any statement that places responsibility on the victim, such as, ‘You should not have been out so late,’ ‘You should have known better than to drink so much,’ or ‘I told you it was a bad idea to go to that party.’ Such statements are abusive, judgmental, and blaming in nature; negative and critical comments are harmful and will certainly make the victim feel worse,” says Dr. Manly.
7 Avoid comparing their experiences with yours
While you may want to share your own experience or compare their assault to a celebrity’s story or pop culture topic, it’s best to refrain from doing this. Each experience is unique to each survivor and should never be judged or compared to anyone else’s story. “Avoid saying things such as, ‘I know how you feel,’ or ‘I know from my own experience what you are going through.’ Such statements put the focus on the speaker as the ‘knower’ rather than allowing the victim to feel heard and validated for their unique feelings and experience,” Dr. Manly.
So what should you say instead? Well, according to Dr. Manly, you can offer, “‘I hear that you’re feeling very scared,’ ‘It sounds as if you’re tremendously anxious right now,’ or ‘It seems that you’re very angry.’ These statements create an open line of communication that validates and supports the other person while also inviting further information. It is not appropriate to compare or contrast the victim’s experience to your own, that of a celebrity, or any other person.”
8 Refrain from telling them to hide their assault
“The victim will not feel supported by any statements that are aggressive, judgmental, or critical. The best approach is to offer patient, kind support by listening, and then offer clear advice as to available support. It is never appropriate to tell a victim to hide the sexual assault,” says. Dr. Manly.
Suggesting a family member hide their assault will prevent them from healing and sharing their experience with other people who care deeply about them. This kind of language can inflict shame, which could indict them into believing they are the ones to blame. Rather than telling them this, you can offer to be with them if they decide to tell someone else. This can make them feel less alone if they’re afraid to speak out.
9 Never tell them they should have reported it
While you may assume that you would do something different if you were in this situation, that doesn’t mean you should force your opinions onto others. Telling your family member that they should have reported the assault will make them feel less in control of their personal situation. “First, using the word ‘should’ will make the victim feel shamed; this, in itself, is very harmful. If the victim has not reported the abuse, the best approach is to say, ‘Would you like to report the abuse now? Would that help you heal in any way?’ Then, it’s vital that the victim’s position [is] supported and honored. If the victim elects not to report the abuse, judgmental comments are not appropriate or helpful,” says Dr. Manly.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, please check out these organizations that can provide guidance—because no one should feel alone.