Sexual abuse victims often experience a range of reactions and emotions from pain, anger, hate, helplessness, and other challenges that negatively affect their mental health. As different victims feel differently about their experiences, it can be difficult to know what to do or say to help sexual abuse victims.
When your loved one or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, the best thing you can do is to make yourself available. It’s also important to actively listen if they decide to share their experiences with you. Listen non-judgementally and remind them that they are not to be blamed for what happened and that they didn’t deserve what they experienced. This is important because most victims of sexual assault tend to blame themselves for what they experienced.
It is also important for you to sympathise with their situation, try to acknowledge how the abuse has affected their lives, and reassure them that they are not alone and you’ll be there for them if they need your support.
Sexual abuse victims often develop certain behavioural changes in response to the extremely life-threatening experience they had. To help sexual abuse victims, knowing these changes are important. Some of these changes could be some or all of the following:
- Self-blaming and feelings of worthlessness
- Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
- Changes in sleep patterns (either too much or not enough)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Nightmares and flashbacks
- Changes in appetite and weight
- General mistrust in people
- Suicidal thoughts
These changes in behavior are not specific to sexual abuse, anyone going through a major mental challenge could exhibit these symptoms. However, they could serve as indicators that your loved ones and friends are struggling to cope with trauma which could be sexual abuse.
As a close person to a family member or friend, you could be a judge of their behavior and can easily tell when they are acting in a typical manner for no apparent reason. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions directly about your observations, your actions could be the starting point to their recovery as it often leads to getting help for sexual abuse victims.
How to Assist Sexual Abuse Victims
As explained earlier, sexual abuse develops emotions and reactions that negatively affect the mental and sometimes physical wellbeing of the victim. If you are not a victim yourself you may not be able to fully understand what they are going through, leaving you confused about how to best support them. Here is what you need to do to help sexual abuse victims.
1. Pay Attention to Them (if they wish to speak)
One of the most important things you could do for a sexual abuse victim is to be available for them, listen to them if they decide to talk about what happened. Don’t try to force or pressure them into sharing their experience, allow them to do that on their own will. They may want to express frustration, anger, or sadness about what happened, listen to them non-judgementally, and support them.
Having someone to talk to and count on is a good means for a sexual abuse victim to express their emotions about their experience and possibly seek further help.
2. Maintain Your Composure
Once you’ve learned that your friend or loved one was sexually abused, it is common for you to feel anger or shock by what they’ve been through. However, expressing anger or shock might make the victim even more confused or more pain.
Also, avoid making threats against the perpetrator. You might think doing that is being supportive, but that could make the experience even more stressful for the victim.
3. Maintain Confidentiality
It is important for you to understand this experience isn’t yours or about you, and as such not your story to tell. Let the victim decide who to share their story of sexual abuse with.
Don’t share your loved one or friend’s experience without their permission. Most sexual abuse victims develop feelings of embarrassment and shame. Sharing their experience with others without their permission would only deepen the wound.
4. Establish Boundaries
Being a good listener and supportive goes a long way in providing help to sexual abuse victims. However, make sure not to do that at the expense of your own health and responsibilities. Set a time and condition that works for both of you. Don’t let your loved one or friend’s experience consume you as it will not be helpful to either of you.
Know that for you to be supportive, you have to be healthy first.
5. Educate Yourself
The most important way to be of help to sexual abuse victims is to educate yourself about their experience. While you can’t fully understand what they’re going through, except if you were a victim yourself, try to research available resources on how sexual abuse victims feel and how you can support them.
Getting yourself educated, would dispel any misconceptions you might have about sexual abuse and give you a foresight about what the victim’s recovery looks like.
6. Pay Attention to the Victims
As earlier stated, sexual abuse victims feel a range of emotions and this can be different in victims, including the way they react. It helps a lot if you watch out for odd behaviors that may suggest they are going through crises, this could be excessive crying, nightmares or flashbacks, or talking about dying.
If you should observe any of these, encourage them to reach out to a mental health professional.
7. Extend Invitation
Sexual abuse victims tend to withdraw and isolate themselves. Don’t be surprised when they refuse to join you in an activity, but that doesn’t mean that you should give up on them. Continue to invite them to things even if they decline, they’ll still appreciate the invite.
This reassures them that they are loved and valued especially at times such as this which they feel alone.
8. Encourage Therapy
The journey to recovery from sexual abuse is a difficult one and this is different for different victims. However, with therapy, this difficulty can be effectively addressed.
Encourage the victim to consider therapy but do not insist. Therapy can only help a sexual abuse victim when the victim is willing to work towards healing.
It is not easy or a one-time process to help sexual abuse victims. The healing process is a long one and you have to remind them that you are still available if they need you, this is so you allow them to make the decision themselves. This gives them a sense of control in their lives after experiencing a situation they have no control over.
Remember you can only provide support to the victim through the healing process but you can’t heal them yourself.