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Helping a Friend

Having a friend, family member, or someone you care about disclose abuse to you can be very difficult. It is not always easy to know what to say or do, but this section will provide you with some general guidance. This page will also provide you with information on the immediate and long-term responses to sexual violence.

The most important things you can do when a survivor discloses abuse or assault to you are to believe them and to listen to them. Most of us have been taught to learn more or question a person when they tell us a story, problem, or issue. However, in this case it is very important not to ask a lot of questions as it may seem as if you don’t believe them and may re-traumatize them if they aren’t ready to share what has happened. Never imply that the survivor of the abuse or assault could have prevented it or that s/he contributed to it in any way.

  • Ask: “How can I help?” Support your friend in whatever way they need and in whatever way you are willing to help. By asking them what they need, you are giving them some control over a situation in which they most likely feel powerless. This also helps you to know what will be helpful to them.
  • Say: “I believe you.” Even if you are skeptical that the assault occurred, it’s not your job to make that decision, nor is it your job to investigate what happened. Your job is to support your friend. Telling them you believe them and offering to be there with them is one of the most important things you can do.
  • Remind yourself: “Everyone reacts differently.” Survivors of assault and abuse will all react differently, and it may not be in a way you expect. Try not to assume anything based on your friend’s behavior, as we all find ways to cope with acts of violence in different ways. If your friend seems to “be fine” that doesn’t mean they are not impacted or that the assault or abuse did not occur. Letting your friend know you’re there and willing to help, regardless of how they seem to be handling it, can help a lot.
  • Tell them: “I’m here if you want to talk.” Let your friend know that you are there if and when they want to talk about what happened. Don’t force them to tell their story, because they may not be ready to share it. But, letting them know you’re there when they are ready can provide a lot of support and reassurance to them.
  • Discuss: “Let’s figure out what might be helpful for you.” Talk with your friend about their options. Remember to provide the information in a way that allows them to make their own decisions. If they aren’t ready to report the abuse or to receive help, that’s their decision. Visit our resources section for a list of on campus resources and off campus resources.
  • Offer: “Would you like me to go with you?” If you’re comfortable with it, offer to go with your friend if they decide to receive medical attention or to report their abuse or assault. If you aren’t comfortable with it, that’s okay! Remember that you can also offer to find another friend or to call DVIS for them to get them an advocate.
  • Be patient. Everyone will recover from an assault or abuse at their own pace. Sometimes, it may seem like your friend has recovered only to show minor to severe responses to the assault sometime later. Remember to never ask a friend to “get over it” or imply that they should be “recovered by now”.
  • Ask yourself: “Am I ok?” Helping a survivor of assault or abuse can be very difficult. Take care of yourself and consider talking to someone about your own wellbeing. The TU Counseling and Psychological Services Center is free and confidential to all students and confidential as well.

Immediate and Long Term Responses to Sexual Violence

Survivors of sexual violence can respond to their assault in a wide variety of ways, and it is important to remember and accept however they respond. Sexual violence trauma violates a person physically and emotionally and we will all respond differently to this. Additionally, these events are traumatic not because they are rare, but because they overwhelm the internal resources that usually give individuals a sense of control, connection, and meaning (Bryant-Davis, 2015).

Responses to sexual violence can be physical, emotional, and social and can include:

  • Shock and/or denial
  • Intense fear, anxiety, shame, self-blame, and/or guilt
  • Feelings of isolation, powerlessness, and/or hopelessness
  • Anger
  • Inability to focus, depression, flat affects (severely reduced emotional expressiveness), difficulty sleeping, increased sleeping, and/or changed sleep patterns.
  • Intrusive memories or thoughts about the assault or assailant
  • Inability to trust others, including family and friends, distancing self from others, decreased desire for physical intimacy/touching.
  • Humor, delayed responses, and continued contact with the perpetrator can also be responses. Remember that everyone responds to their assault differently and will find their own ways of coping with the stress and invasion to their self.

If your friend starts distancing themselves from you or becomes angry with you, check your words and actions to make sure you haven’t unintentionally victim-blamed (have any of your statements or questions implied that your friend could have prevented or avoided their assault?). If you have, apologize and offer them your support and belief. If you haven’t remember that anger and distancing are common effects of being assaulted or abused and you might be a handy target. Try not to take the anger personally and continue to be there for your friend. Even if they are angry with you, knowing there is someone there for them can help them tremendously.

If you have questions about any of the material on this page, please call or email Kelsey Hancock at
918-631-2324, or kelsey-hancock@utulsa.edu.

References