Understanding how to support your friend after a sexual assault can be challenging for many. We can say that “we understand how they feel” but in reality, we don’t. This is because trauma affects everyone in their own unique way, causing us to struggle with knowing what the “right” thing to say or do is, even if we too, experienced something similar. However, there really isn’t one linear way you can support your friend. Everyone heals differently, and can experience a variety of responses to trauma. Some may want you to check in on them, while others prefer that you don’t bring up what took place until they are ready to talk about it. The first step is to acknowledge those differences, and be there as a friend they can lean on, while also keeping your own mental health in mind.
Below are some helpful tips on how to support your friend who has been sexually assaulted.
But first, let’s touch on what you shouldn’t do.
Don’t make assumptions
It’s important that you don’t pressure your friend into handling what they went through the way you believe is best. For example, many survivors may not feel comfortable or ready to report what took place. You have to respect their wishes, and refrain from pressuring them to come forward. That is their decision and they will do what’s best for them. Talking about the trauma could cause them to relive those memories. You must be patient with your friend, rather than nag or pressure them which will only force them to relive their trauma. In other cases, be mindful of touch. Ask before you hug, as that could also be a trigger; it may feel as though their personal space was again violated. At the end of the day, your friend has to be the one in charge, not you. They will do what is best for them, but will be grateful for your support.
Don’t place judgment
No one wants to feel judged. It can be an awful feeling if your friend regrets opening up to you after they shared something so personal. They may be scared to confide in anyone else if someone who they see as a close friend, judged a traumatic experience. Certain things that may appear judgmental could be questioning their memory, their judgment, asking them what they wore, if they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or saying that it could have been worse. Your friend wants your support. They don’t want to be questioned after opening up about something that changed their life. Be aware of what you say and how you respond to your friend’s story. We’re humans and sometimes we don’t know how to respond, and accidentally say the wrong thing. What’s most important is that you learn from those encounters, and acknowledge how you can do better next time.
Here’s what you should do to support your friend:
Survivors need a place where they can express themselves without feeling like they’ll be judged, interrupted or invalidated. Being a good listener can go a long way. Just letting your friend vent to you will be greatly appreciated by them.
Respect their privacy
It is not your place to share the private details of their trauma with others. That is their story, and they will decide who they want to tell. If you do feel as though their safety is at risk, let your friend know that for their safety you feel compelled to tell someone who can help.
Your friend needs to know that what took place is not their fault. It never is. Reassure them, acknowledge what took place. Be patient when it comes to this; they may ask dozens of times for reassurance due to feelings of guilt or shame, even though they have absolutely no reason to feel that way.
Educate yourself on the effects of sexual assault
It can never hurt to educate yourself. If you are struggling to understand what your friend is going through, there are many helpful articles in our Resource Library that can help you better support and recognize what your friend is going through. It shows you care, and can make a positive difference in how you handle the situation.
Ask how you can support them
You can always ask your friend what the best way to support them is if you’re unsure. They will appreciate you taking that extra step to understand what they need from you. For example, inquire if they want you to bring up what took place, or not speak of it unless they bring it up. Knowing these details can make navigating the way you support your friend a lot easier.
Your mental health matters too
Your mental health is just as important as your friend’s. The details of their assault can be extremely upsetting for you and even bring up past trauma if you have gone through something similar. You should seek help, and take care of your mental health if it’s taking a toll on you. If it is too much, voice that to your friend in a way that won’t make them feel bad or try talking to a mental health professional that can help you manage those feelings.
Written by: Taryn Herlich