How to Help a Friend
Survivors expect not to be believed and often aren’t. There are ways of listening that can help empower your friend and help them feel safe after experiencing trauma.
To be a good listener to someone who has experienced trauma, keep a few things in mind:
- They did not do anything that “made this” happen to them.
- A person is four times more likely to be raped by someone they know than by a stranger.
- Accept their own emotional response to the trauma. They may be confused, self-blaming, angry, calm, or silent, or all of these.
- There is no “right” way to respond to trauma for the survivor. Let them react, rant, cry, or sit in silence.
- Even attempted sexual assault or other sexual violence that is not rape is traumatizing. Do not diminish or invalidate their experience by saying, “Well, at least he didn’t…” or “At least _______ didn’t happen.”
- Let your friend talk and tell the story at their own pace.
- Be patient if they need silence and for you to sit with them.
- Reinforce that the incident was not their fault.
- Avoid blaming questions such as "Why didn’t you scream?" or "Why did you go to the room?" or "Why don’t you just break up?"
- Allow your friend time to talk out feelings of self-blame. These are normal. Gently remind them that it was not their fault.
- Do not make any decisions for them. Assault removes a person’s power and they need to feel in control again. You will empower them by trusting them to know what they need when they need it.
- If they want to report the incident, ask if they want your help. Remind them that reporting an assault does not necessarily mean pressing charges. Obtaining a post-assault examination gives them more options but does not require any specific course of action. This exam should be done within 3-4 days and the person should not eat, drink, wash, brush teeth, or change or destroy clothes. The person can still report even if they have waited longer or have washed, etc.
- Ask if they need company or privacy or want someone to stay with them. Offer what you can actually provide. Try not to promise something and then not do it.
Remember that it takes time and that your friend may become hypervigilant and want company to do things that may seem perfectly safe to you but don’t feel that way to them anymore.
Remember too that it can take a long time for someone to feel “back to normal,” so try not to chide them for not being their “old self” right away.
Remind yourself that they may self-medicate with alcohol or other substances, avoid self-care, and become depressed or anxious. Express concern but don’t scold. Suggest alternatives (going to see music, getting ice cream) that may provide relief.
Suggest that the friend seek counseling and other support services. A trained counselor can guide them through the first critical hours after an assault and inform them of their options but will not require them to report the assault to the police. Support services are also available for those who have been sexually assaulted in the past. Allow the person to make a decision about what is best. You can also offer to go with them.
Take care of yourself, too
- Be aware of your own feelings. You may feel hurt, angry, guilty, anxious, or frightened. Such feelings are understandable, but your reactions may feel surprising, confusing, or overwhelming.
- Know and respect your own limits. There is only so much you can do to help your friend. You can provide support and compassion. Try not to offer more than you can give, and encourage your friend to seek additional support.
- Remember that it was not your fault. You may feel guilty, thinking that you could have done something to prevent your friend from being hurt. Remind yourself that the blame lies only with the person(s) who committed the acts of sexual violence.
- Do not be afraid to ask for help. Find someone other than the survivor to talk with about your feelings. Talking with someone else can help you understand your own emotions and give you a clearer perspective on the situation. These same resources are available for you, too.
- Keep the rest of your life on track. Do not forget to take care of yourself and pay attention to your own wellbeing. This will help both you and your friend.
If you have questions
If you have any questions on how to assist a friend who has experienced sexual assault, intimate partner violence, or stalking, please contact one of the following: