Research has shown that the quality of social responses victims/survivors receive after disclosing is strongly associated with mental wellness, the likelihood of disclosing violence again in the future and the likelihood of accessing formal supports in the future. A negative social response can be more harmful than things like self-blame, avoidance coping and PTSD (Ullman, 2014).
Our responses matter. If someone has disclosed to you, you’re already doing something right. You have already interacted with this person in such a way that they have deliberately chosen you.
You don’t have to be an expert to give a helpful response. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Find a private place to talk.
- Be patient and let them tell you as little or as much as they want, at their own pace, without interrupting. Follow their lead on this.
- Concentrate on hearing their feelings and perspectives, instead of being focused on what YOU think should happen next or how a survivor should look.
- Show them that you are actively listening through your body language (e.g., nodding, facing in their direction, sitting down at eye level) and words (e.g., “I hear what you’re saying”).
- Be aware that some people may find themselves flooded with emotions. If they are getting increasingly upset while telling you about what happened, they may be reliving the experience. There are several ways you can help to ground them if they are overwhelmed:
Encourage them to take slow deep breaths while gently planting their feet into the floor and holding on to their knees. Ask them to keep their eyes open, even if just momentarily.
- Respect their personal space, and do not touch them. Even if you think they want a comforting touch, resist your urge to do so. Always follow their lead. You can offer them something to keep them warm, like a blanket or your jacket (shock can involve feeling cold, shivering and shaking).
- Encourage the victim/survivor to pay attention to their body as they are telling their story, and to stop or take breaks whenever they need to.
- Understand your own limits: There are professionals in our community who have the training to offer long term support.
- Remember that false reports of sexualized assault are no more common than false reports for other crime, as low as 2%. Considering the multitude of barriers to disclosing, the chanced that someone is not telling the truth are very low.
- Validate their feelings and assure them that these are normal responses to a very traumatic event.
- Assure them that it was not their fault and that the responsibility for sexual assault lies solely with the perpetrator.
This is true regardless of whether they were drinking, got into the perpetrator’s car, brought the perpetrator to their home, etc. It does not matter what the survivor did or did not do before, during, or after the assault – it is never their fault.
- Reassure them they are not alone that there are supports on and off campus that you can help them get connected to, and provide them with specific information about how to connect with those services.
- Encourage them to be patient with themselves, and trust them to make their own choices about what to do next. Sexualized violence can result in a profound sense of loss of power and control. You can help them regain control over their life by trusting them to make their own choices about what to do next. You do not need to do everything for them; inform them about the supports available, and to offer support to getting connected to those services.
- Ask them about safety. If they have somewhere safe to stay, and let them know there are resource to help them safety plan.
- Help them find resources they are comfortable with and offer to accompany them. Offer them options and resources, rather than telling them what to do or giving them advice. Keep your initial information simple and straightforward.
- Reassure them that, even if they feel overwhelmed by decisions, they can take their time.
- Warn them in advance if you know that the perpetrator will be at the same game, party or class as your friend, and help them make a plan to stay safe.
The importance of a survivor-centred approach
Recognizing that violence affects individuals in unique ways and that people are experts of their own experiences, TRU has committed to using a survivor-centered approach. This means we are truly listening to what survivors are saying they need or want, and doing our best to accommodate that.
Sometimes, this can feel at odds with our well-meaning desire to take the reins, to “fix” things or to express what we think a survivor “should” do. When this feeling comes up, remind yourself that survivors are making smart, calculated decisions to prioritize their own safety. They are capable of deciding what they want to do, who they want to tell, which supports they want to access, and when to do so.
Our role in being survivor-centered is to be willing to explore options with a survivor, respect their choices and individual timelines, be transparent in your own limitations (ie don’t make promises you can’t keep or speak to something you’re unsure about), offer to accompany them to different appointments or services, and remind them that you’re there for them but that they are the experts of their own lives and get to choose what they do when.
If a survivor asks for their disclosure to go nowhere else past you, you are not doing nothing. You’re following their lead which can enhance safety and feelings of autonomy.
The caveat here is imminent danger to self, others, or community. If you feel there is an immediate risk to safety and that you need to share information with the authorities or others, be transparent with the survivor about what information you’re sharing, with who, and why – you care about their safety.