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Supporting Survivors

Introduction

This section explores the impact of sexual abuse on an individual, and discusses some guidance for family, friends, colleagues and professionals who are looking to provide support to somebody who has experienced rape or sexual abuse.

1 – Supporting Survivors – Survivor Stories

Sexual violence and abuse not only affects the person who directly experienced the abuse. It also affects those around them and the wider society we live in. Click the video to the left to listen to some experiences shared by survivors and those closest to them to better understand what support was like for them.


Click the video to the right to hear tips from a survivor and their mother about how the reactions of others helped them on their journey of recovery.


Click the links below to watch the survivor interviews in full on YouTube:

2 – What to do When Someone Tells You They Have Been Raped or Sexually Abused

When someone tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted or abused, it can be a lot to handle. A supportive reaction is essential to diminish any shame or blame that person might be feeling as a result of experiencing sexual abuse. Encouraging words and phrases can avoid judgment and show support.

It is very normal to start thinking or worrying about next steps and how you can support a person if they disclose sexual abuse to you but try to put that aside for the moment and focus on listening and being there for that person in the present.

The most important thing that you can do is to listen empathetically and tell the person that you believe them. Validate their reality. Acknowledge the harm done to them and recognise the courage and strength it has taken for that person to disclose to you.

If the person is still in contact with the perpetrator, try to avoid saying anything negative about them. You understandably may be upset or angry, but the person may still have complicated feelings about the perpetrator. Instead, focus on the survivor and what they need now to help them in their journey of healing.

Vulnerability and safeguarding

Information about the person telling you that they have experienced sexual violence/abuse, or whom you are concerned about, will help you better understand how to respond and provide support.

Adults (aged over 18 years)
If the person who tells you that they have experienced sexual abuse is an adult (over 18 years old), whether the abuse is still happening, happened recently or  a long time ago, you do not have to pass this information to anyone else. This is true unless the adult is unable to protect themselves properly, or if they are considered ‘vulnerable’. For example, they may have a learning difficulty, a physical or mental illness that makes it difficult for them to protect themselves, or they may be elderly or easily taken advantage of.

Children (aged under 18 years)

If the person telling you that they have or are experiencing sexual abuse is under 18 years old (child) then you will need to share information that the child tells you with an appropriate professional.

If the person disclosing to you is considered vulnerable, then you will likely need to share information that the person tells you with an appropriate professional. This can feel difficult as it may seem as though you are breaking a trust or taking decisions out of the person’s control. It is important to remember that we all have a responsibility to protect those in our society who are considered vulnerable, and this can be done whilst still maintaining a relationship of trust and support between you and that person.

Here are some tips to assist you:

  • Be honest that you will have to tell somebody about some of what you have been told
  • Include the victim/survivor as much as possible with information sharing, such as telling them exactly what details you need to share, who with and when. Offer the option to be present when you share information
  • Reassure the person that they are doing the right thing by telling you
  • It is important to let them know that they haven’t done anything wrong and will not get into trouble
  • Try and establish if the person is still at risk of harm from the perpetrator by asking gentle exploratory questions, for example: ‘Are you comfortable sharing with me how you know this person?’ or ‘Are you worried it will happen again?
  • If the person isn’t comfortable disclosing certain information or doesn’t want to, then that is okay. You should not try and pressure them for information.
  • You should report any concerns to the relevant authorities or person as soon as possible
  • Do not assume someone else has raised concerns or has shared the same information that you have
  • Let the person know that they do not have to talk about what happened with anyone unless they want to
  • Offer to support or assist them if they want to make a report themselves by finding out what options are available and what steps involved so they understand what they can expect if they decide to report. Click here to download a PDF guide on reporting options.
  • Avoid pressuring them into disclosing to someone else but offer to support them if they want to do so
  • Do not suggest that they are responsible for the behaviour of the perpetrator. Avoid phrases such as: ‘If you don’t report this it could happen to someone else.
  • If you do not know something, say that you do not know and offer to find out. You are not expected to have all the answers.

Non-vulnerable adults are considered to have the ability and capacity to make their own choices and decisions about their lives. However, for other people you do need to inform an appropriate person of any disclosures because they are considered to be vulnerable and need others to raise any concerns that harm has been caused and that there may still be a risk of further harm.

The following groups of people are classed as vulnerable. This means that you will need to pass the information shared with you about the abuse to somebody else:

  • Children (under the age of 18 years)
  • Adults with learning disabilities or mental illness resulting in limited mental capacity
  • Adults who are ill or elderly and unable to protect themselves.
  • Call 999 if you are reporting a crime that is in progress or if someone is in immediate danger
  • If it’s not an emergency, you can report the crime online or call 101
  • Contact The Local Council if you think someone is at risk or is being abused
  • Action on Elder Abuse helpline: 0808 808 8141.

Depending on your relationship with the vulnerable person, and the setting that you are in, you may be able to speak to a safeguarding representative, for example in a school setting or medial/care setting. If this is not available, you can call Social Services for further advice. Details for this can be found on your local authority website. 

 

Remember: if you are a professional working with children and/or vulnerable adults, you should check your organisation’s safeguarding policies.

Empowerment

One of the main effects on anybody who has experienced sexual assault is a sense of a lack of control. During abuse a victim/survivor often feels helpless and unable to do anything to stop the assault. A common reaction following any type of sexual assault is the person going over details in their mind of events that took place both before and during the assault and often blaming themselves for some action or inaction, such as: ‘I shouldn’t have stayed late, then I would not have been alone with him…’ or ‘If only I had shouted out then somebody would have heard me and it would have stopped!’. These types of thoughts are a normal reaction to most traumatic events, and even everyday events where outcomes were not necessarily wanted, and they can be part of the recovery process for survivors.

Supporting someone who has experienced sexual violence involves recognising their experience and helping them to become stronger and more confident in their own ability to make choices about their life. It often involves helping them to understand that it was not their fault and there was nothing they could have done to stop the perpetrator. This can be achieved through some of the following ways:

 

  • Options/choice – providing a survivor with available options can help encourage them to consider what they would prefer, such as asking: ‘Would you like me to check in with you at an agreed time or would you prefer to reach out to me?
  • Informed decision making – helping a survivor to make sense of lots of information, which can be overwhelming, around choices can really help them to make decisions
  • Control – reassuring a survivor of their own ability to make appropriate decisions about their life can really help to build confidence and re-empower them. For example, if a survivor is asking you whether they should report the crime or not, rather than giving your opinion of what you think would be best, reassure them that they are the best person to make that decision. You could offer to find out options about what would be involved and help talk through various considerations.

 

The thought of going through the Criminal Justice Process can be daunting and overwhelming for some and a clearly definitive decision for others. There are several options available around reporting sexual assault/abuse to police which can be helpful for that person to decide what is right for them. Please click on this link to find out more.

Empowering someone is more likely to lead to improved recovery and better outcomes. On the other hand, an approach which lacks empowering techniques can delay a person’s recovery and sometimes make things worse.

 

3 – Emotional Support

 



Providing a non-judgemental, compassionate and understanding approach to somebody who has experienced sexual violence/abuse can help them feel supported, reassured, connected and safe. It can also really help them through their recovery process. This can be done by using some useful techniques which are outlined below.

Effective listening

When a survivor feels as though they have been understood and listened to, it affirms and validates their feelings and experiences. This can really help with their journey of recovery. It can make a big difference in how a survivor feels and experiences your support.

Listening does not come naturally to most people, so we need to work at it, to stop ourselves ‘jumping in’ and giving our opinions, or trying to ‘rescue’ the survivor. Both of these responses can be unhelpful. Often, people do not listen properly –they just take turns to speak. We all tend to be more interested in announcing our own views and experiences than really listening and understanding others.

Effective listening is not just about what somebody says, it includes body language, facial expressions, reactions of others, cultural elements, and the reactions of the speaker and the listeners to each other. As a listener you need to remain genuine to yourself. 

Authentic listening involves expressing how what you are hearing is making you feel, e.g. angry, sad, etc. This should not override the survivor’s needs, but your humanness can play a role in helping the survivor to reconnect with others.

Here are some ways that you can be an effective listener:

 

  • Pay attention – give your full attention. Try to avoid any distractions or mentally preparing a response. Be physically and mentally focused on and towards the person
  • Show that you are listening – adopt an open and engaged posture. Acknowledge understanding by nodding or saying ‘Yes,’ and “Uh huh.”
  • Clarify – summarise what you have heard. Ask questions to clarify that you have correctly understood, for example: ‘So, you are saying that…
  • Withholding judgment – avoid interrupting and wait until the person has finished making a point
  • Open minded – be open to learning something. Try not to let your opinions, assumptions or judgements cloud what you hear
  • Reflect – rephrasing what has been said can help a survivor feel heard as well as make sense of what they are feeling and experienced.

Video – Improve Your Listening Skills with Active Listening – Dr. Gabor Maté – YouTube

 

Click this link to watch MindTools’ video on practicing active listening skills, which can help you to support a survivor.

 

Please note: This link will take you away from The Survivors Trust Resources website. The link is being provided for informational purposes only. The Survivors Trust bears no responsibility for any advertising content shown on external websites and videos.

 

Click here for a guide on how to clear your YouTube browsing history.

Non-judgemental

Being non-judgmental encourages a person to feel comfortable enough to freely express themselves through conversation and builds trust. A non-judgmental approach avoids giving negative feedback or criticisms and does not suggest that what a survivor may have done or not done was wrong or bad, or how they are feeling or handling things is wrong, bad, silly or stupid.

We automatically make judgments about people when we first meet them based on appearance, behaviour and what they say and that’s the normal way our mind processes large amounts of information to assess potential risks etc. Non-judgmental listening is making sure that you don’t express those negative judgments.

Respecting that person’s feelings, personal values and experiences, even if they are different from your own or you disagree with them can help you be more genuine and empathic.

Understanding

In order to try and understand the experiences and needs of somebody who has experienced sexual violence, showing that you have heard what they have said, acknowledging their feelings and being ‘with them’ on an emotional level can be comforting for them and provide a better insight for you. Empathy, trust, and respect are important for building a supportive relationship. There are various terms used to describe an emotional connection/expression to another person’s experience with slightly different meanings:

 

  • Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another
  • Sympathy: the feeling of pity or sorrow for someone else
  • Compassion: an emotional response to empathy or sympathy and creates a desire to help.

Click here to visit Psychological Science’s article on the neuroscience behind empathy.

Video – Empathy vs Sympathy: Which one are you? – YouTube
Click this link to watch Psych2Go’s animation on the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Video – Brené Brown on Empathy – YouTube
Click this link to watch an animation paired with psychologist Dr Brené Brown’s explanation on why empathy can be more helpful than sympathy.

Please note: These links will take you away from The Survivors Trust Resources website. The links are being provided for informational purposes only. The Survivors Trust bears no responsibility for any advertising content shown on external websites and videos.

Click here for a guide on how to clear your YouTube browsing history.

When listening to a survivor, try to understand how they feel and slowly help them to identify what they want to achieve. This may be for their experience to be understood and validated, to feel heard or reassured. They may even want practical assistance or advice. Here are some phrases which help an empathetic approach:

 

  • “This must be so difficult for you…”
  • “I can’t imagine what you must be going through.”
  • “That must have been awful for you…”
  • “I can see how that would be difficult.”
  • “This must be hard to talk about. Thanks for opening up to me.”
  • “I want to make sure I understand…”
 

There are statements which you should try to avoid saying, even if you mean well, as they can be taken in a way that may not be helpful and could even be harmful. For example, asking about what they were doing or wearing at the time of the assault, or why they may have not fought back. This can suggest some blame on the victim/survivor. Stating that things could be worse, making comparisons to other people’s situations or circumstances or reacting with panic are responses that can unintentionally diminish and dismiss that person’s traumatic experience, and even result in them having to give you emotional support.

4 – Practical Support

Helping out with practical tasks, chores and organising things can help to relieve additional stressors from anyone who is overwhelmed with the effects of experiencing sexual abuse, whether the assault occurred recently, weeks, months or years ago.

 

Experiencing the aftermath of sexual abuse can be overwhelming and seriously affect a person’ ability to function on a day-to-day basis. Even tasks that seem simple, such as getting out of bed or making something to eat, can just be unmanageable to somebody who is struggling. On the other hand, some individuals may go into ‘overdrive’ and attempt to do too much and everything at once. Trauma responses vary from person to person, but there are some commonly recognised reactions. Trauma responses are a completely normal reaction to a traumatic event.

Staged approach

Taking one step at a time by offering to help to go through everything that a survivor/victim says they need or want to do and suggesting they consider prioritising tasks can be really helpful. You can help them determine things which may have deadlines and a sense of urgency, such as accessing treatment, a school assignment, or an overdue bill. Ask them what they believe is the most pressing for them then help them divide tasks into smaller manageable ones. Helping them to achieve success, however small it may feel to you, can feel like a mountain climbed for a survivor and help them to begin to feel that they have some control again.

It can be useful to think of organising tasks into short-term, medium and long-term groups to keep focused on one or two tasks at a time and help bring back the person’s mind from feeling overwhelmed with thoughts of additional worries and concerns.

For example, it is completely understandable for anyone who has experienced rape to be concerned about risks around sexually transmitted infections and/or pregnancy. The anxiety, fear and worry with any perceived associated consequences can feel unbearable. As a supporter you can try and guide them to consider helping make them an appointment at a sexual health clinic and getting advice from a professional to provide a fact-based approach: ‘
I can speak to a health professional if you like, support you at the appointment, and look at what options are available to check out any of your concerns. If you decide to get a check-up, and once you know the outcome of that I can help you look at your options.

Remember: trauma responses are a completely normal reaction to a traumatic event. For more information, visit the Trauma section of our website.

Taking things one step at a time helps to organise practical aspects of life and associated needs arising from the effects of sexual violence/abuse. It is a simple and effective way to help someone who may be feeling overwhelmed, chaotic, and struggling to manage and helps break down multiple tasks into smaller and more manageable ones. It also empowers the individual with a sense of achievement. Making an appointment with their GP, for example, can bring a sense of achievement and moving forward.

Person-led

Taking what a survivor has told you about their needs and preferences to guide how you can practically support them validates their own abilities to make decisions and encourages empowerment. It can be tempting to think that we might know best what someone needs, such as counselling, but thinking this way can be more about what we would prefer and to relieve our own emotional distress, rather than providing help to the survivor. Encourage them to decide what they want and need.

It can feel frustrating when someone seems to be making progress and goes back into trauma responses. Remember that they are going at the speed which is right for them. For survivors with a high level of dissociation, including survivors with Dissociative Identity Disorder, this may appear even more complex as parts of them might be ready to talk about the abuse while other parts either know nothing about it or are in a state of denial.

Institutional advocacy

A person who has experienced sexual abuse may have difficulty expressing their needs and point of view to professionals. This could be something you can offer to assist with. Most organisations will require the consent of the person that you are acting on behalf of.

Example scenario: your friend experienced sexual abuse as a child and has only just told this to police after her recent divorce triggered an emotional breakdown. She feels overwhelmed with everything and is struggling to get help. She has tried calling a counselling service recommended to her but has not managed to get an appointment, and nobody is calling her back. She has agreed to your offer to contact the service on her behalf.

Here are some tips for advocating on behalf of someone:

  • Objectives – be clear with the person you are advocating for. Discuss exactly what they want to achieve and what they do and do not want to you to say and to whom
  • Expectation – you cannot guarantee that you can achieve what the person wants, but you can try your best. Be clear about this and do not make promises you are unable to keep
  • Preparation – try and gather as much information as possible beforehand, so you can understand any potential challenges or limitations. For example, a counselling service may only operate during office hours or have a policy of not leaving messages
  • Facts – it is useful to base discussions on facts, rather than emotions. For example, the number of attempts and times calls have been made and what was said
  • Negotiation – advocacy may include negotiating.
Attending appointments

Sometimes a survivor may just want you to accompany them to an appointment to give them some emotional support. Be clear what they want and expect from you at the appointment, whether they want you to advocate on their behalf or not. It is important to allow the survivor to take the lead if they feel able to and often it can help recovery when the person acts on their own behalf.

Helping with practical chores

Whilst it is not recommended to act as a fulltime carer when supporting a survivor, it can really help if you are able to spare some time to help out with practical chores, such as cooking a meal, cleaning the house, shopping etc. These routine tasks can feel too much for someone trying to cope with the effects of sexual abuse, and any help with these can provide relief and space for them to recover, or even attend an appointment.

When someone is physically ill or debilitated, such as having a broken leg or the flu, it is easier to see how they would not be able to manage some routine chores and need the appropriate time and rest to heal and recover. The emotional and psychological effects of sexual violence can and often does affect a person in their ability to function, and despite appearing to be physically fine being practically supported in the same way provides much needed time and space for recovery.

5 – Signposting

Giving information to a survivor about possible support services means offering suggested options of potential services which they may wish to consider for specific support. Depending on the needs of a survivor, there are many different services which can offer professional advice and support. Offering to look into what service are available for someone and how they can access these can be really helpful.

The Survivors Trust member agencies offer specialist support to all survivors of rape, sexual abuse and sexual assault.
Click here to find local services to you that can provide specialist advice, support and guidance around sexual abuse and violence here.

Professional support

A local Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) or Independent Sexual Violence Adviser (ISVA) service is usually a good place to direct a victim/survivor to, even if it is only for advice. They understand the needs associated with the aftermath of sexual violence, both recent and non-recent, and will often be able to signpost to other organisations, such as drug and alcohol misuse services, counselling, sexual health etc. There are also national helplines who will offer a range of advice.

Recognise your limitations and that you are not a professional, nor are you expected to know everything. It is always better to signpost a survivor rather than risk misinforming them, albeit with good intention, or taking on too much responsibility yourself.

6 – Boundaries

Being there and giving support to someone who has experienced sexual abuse can make a real difference to their journey of recovery. It is really important that you also recognise, understand and take care of your own needs to.

Know your own limitations

If a survivor you are supporting wants more than you are able to give them, there are a few things that you can do to make sure you look after yourself and not take on responsibility for their recovery:

  • Admit your limits
  • Encourage the survivor to call on other resources
  • Take some breaks
  • Get help for yourself
  • Address this issue before it becomes a major problem. Face it in partnership with the survivor.
Know your own limitations

Providing the right amount of compassion and empathy when supporting a survivor can be challenging. Sometimes we can take on board too much responsibility and try to ‘fix’ problems for a person who is struggling rather than encouraging the person and assisting their re-empowerment, which can increase their self-esteem and confidence.

Challenges setting boundaries
  • Fear of upsetting or causing further hurt – you may feel as though not agreeing to or doing more than you can manage will cause someone who is suffering the effects of sexual violence to ‘fall apart’
  • Guilt you may worry that saying ‘no’ or not being able to help makes you a ‘bad’ person, maybe selfish and as though you are abandoning them
  • Responsibility – you believe that you are the only one who can or should give all the support needed
  • Unconscious needs – you may find it easier to focus on the needs of others rather than your own, maybe as a distraction from your own problems or feelings of low self-worth.
Tips for healthy boundaries
  • Limit your time – specify your availability and avoid being available 24/7, for example: ‘I can spend an hour with you today, I could help with some chores, or we can just talk, whatever you feel you need and then I have to leave by 7pm…
  • Consistency – ensure your actions match what you say
  • Suggest alternatives – provide alternative options for them to consider, such as online resources, or signposting to services
  • Remember the benefits – setting boundaries is beneficial for fostering a sense of independence and acknowledges their own abilities and strengths. Boundaries also give a sense of structure, predictability and reliability to someone who you are supporting. These are important elements for survivors to build trust and a safe, supportive relationship
  • Remember the disadvantages – without healthy boundaries dependency can develop. You might become resentful, and even end up emotionally and physically drained or even ‘burnt out’.

For more information on building and preserving boundaries, click here to visit the Psych Central website.

Remember: setting healthy boundaries enable you to give the best support and a survivor to receive the best support.

7 – Self-care

Being a supporter of a survivor can be a challenge. While holding the potential for tremendous growth, it can also leave you feeling conflicted, overwhelmed or resentful. You may be frightened or confused, unsure what to do, how to feel or what to expect. These are natural and appropriate responses to a complex and trying situation.

Remember that you are only human. It is okay to get things ‘wrong’ sometimes. Owning and apologising where appropriate is important. 

Dealing with such raw pain is difficult and you need a place where you can express your own feelings and frustrations. If you find yourself feeling extremely defensive or upset when they are talking about the abuse or the effects, you may be reacting from experiences you’ve repressed from your own past. This is very common. One person’s pain frequently brings up hurt for another. Seek support in dealing with your
own unresolved feelings. You are important, too. Visit our Wellbeing webpage for further advice on how you can look after yourself.

Remember that professional support is available for you, too. You may find it useful to seek counselling or therapy yourself. Several of The Survivors Trust member agencies offer specialist support for survivors’ loved ones.

 

8 – Useful Resources for Supporting Survivors

Useful contacts

The Survivors Trust
www.thesurvivorstrust.org

Umbrella agency for over 120 member organisations which provide specialist support to men, women and children who are survivors of sexual violence.
Helpline: 08088 010818

Please note: some of The Survivors Trust member agencies also offer support to family members and partners of survivors. For more information,
get in touch.

PDF guides

PDF – Responding to Disclosures – Useful Phrases
PDF – Negotiation Techniques
PDF – The Skilled Helper – Egan’s 3 Stage Model
PDF – Reporting Options

PDF – From Report to Court – Detailed guidance giving step-by-step information of what to expect if you decide to formerly report a sexual offence to the police