When you learn that someone you love has survived a sexual assault or sexual abuse, it can be extremely difficult to process your own thoughts and feelings while also finding the strength to support them as they heal from this trauma. The initial shock can give way to anger over what has happened, but also sadness, frustration, guilt or concern as you witness how your loved one is hurting. You may even feel a sense of helplessness.
Your mind may be so focussed on supporting the survivor that you may not realize that you, too, might need support for what you are going through. Close friends and family of sexual abuse and sexual assault survivors have an elevated risk of developing secondary traumatic stress disorder (also known as compassion fatigue) as they hear about the traumatic event(s) and support the survivor in the aftermath of what has happened.
The symptoms a person with secondary traumatic stress disorder exhibits frequently mirror what a survivor of the primary trauma can experience. These symptoms can include a combination of cognitive, emotional, behavioural, physical and even spiritual disturbances that can be frightening and overwhelming.
Fortunately, recognition of secondary traumatic stress disorder has grown, and resources and strategies are available to help you manage and resolve these symptoms. In this blog post, I explore how friends and family can support their loved one following a traumatic sexual assault or sexual abuse, while also taking steps to protect themselves from the damaging effects of vicarious trauma.
Your initial response.
Depending on when you learn about what happened to your loved one, they may be in the midst of an acute crisis or at a point in their recovery where they have already had some time to process what has happened to them. You, however, will be hearing about this sexual violence for the first time and might be trying to manage your own intense feelings, while at the same time wanting to be as supportive as possible to your loved one.
There are things you can say to a survivor in this moment that will be comforting to them. There are other things you might say that will not be helpful. If you say something you instantly or belatedly regret, simply apologize when you have the opportunity without dwelling on it and making the issue about yourself. If you are in doubt about what to say, silently supporting them by simply being present is often a powerful message that they are not alone.
Some things you can say to a survivor to show your support and empathy include:
- "Thank you for telling me what happened."
- "I'm so sorry this happened to you. It was not your fault."
- "I'm always here for you if you need or want to talk."
- "You are a survivor."
- "I am here to support you in any way I can. Can I do anything for you right now?"
You might also:
- Ask them if they want a hug, and respect their desire to have or to avoid touch.
- Ask them if they would like you to be present in some capacity to offer moral support, in the event that they plan to seek counselling or contact the police.
You should avoid saying or implying certain things, including:
- "I don't believe it/you."
- "Did you do something to lead them on?"
- "If only you [insert action], you could have avoided it."
- "Why didn't you tell me/anyone sooner?"
- "That happened so long ago, you should move past it."
Many myths about sexual assault and abuse are still so pervasive in society that your reaction may be driven by false ideas about why these actions happen or how a person can or should act in response.
It is also important NOT to:
- Make this about yourself. If you know or are related to the person who assaulted/abused them, you may feel strong and complicated emotions. You should not expect the survivor to have the capacity to support you at this moment or in the future. If you need support, you should look to find someone not personally involved.
- Try to solve all the survivors' problems. You should support their efforts to regain their sense of control over their life, not tell them what to do or how to feel.
- Ask for details about what happened. The survivor should be able to share as much or as little about what happened as they choose.
Your long-term support.
As intense and difficult as it may be to first hear about your loved one's assault and abuse and to try your best to comfort them, it is but one moment on the long and winding path toward healing.
The ways in which we process trauma varies considerably from person to person. People who have been sexually assaulted or abused may experience periods of depression, anxiety, panic attacks, flashbacks, sleep disturbances and many other cognitive, behavioural, emotional and physical symptoms. Survivors may use coping mechanisms to prevent themselves from being overwhelmed by what they are feeling. While some of these coping mechanisms are helpful or benign, others, such as substance abuse, can lead to additional complications for their own well-being and strain relationships with loved ones.
Witnessing what your loved one is going through, and/or hearing about their trauma and how it is making them feel, can be challenging, exhausting and traumatic in itself. People who sustain vicarious trauma as they interact with their loved ones may experience many of the same types of symptoms as the people they are supporting. These include: fatigue, lack of motivation, avoidance, cynicism, isolationism, disassociation, confusion, helplessness, depression, anxiety, mood swings, anger, sadness, prolonged grief, headaches, stomach aches, sleep disturbances and other physical ailments.
Recognizing the symptoms of compassion fatigue in yourself will help you to take care of yourself and your needs, so that you can continue to support your loved one as much as possible.
Prioritize self-care and getting support for yourself.
The metaphor of "putting your own oxygen mask on first" is often used when discussing self-care. While it may seem selfish to think about yourself at a time when someone else is clearly in need of support, you can't sustain the support they need if you are not able to pace yourself and ensure you have what you need to give your best effort.
First, while you may want to do everything you can and more to support your loved one, it is essential to recognize when they need more than you can reasonably give. You are likely not a trained counsellor or therapist. Even if you were, your pre-existing relationship with your loved one would preclude you from acting in a professional capacity. Establishing healthy boundaries as you support your friend or family member will help you to provide the type of support that you are able to, and to identify when another person would have the skills and distance to support them in ways you can't. Boundaries are not to keep other people out of your life, but rather to prevent you from losing your sense of self as you interact with others.
Second, since healing from trauma is a marathon and not a sprint, it is important to acknowledge that self-care should be a consistent part of your routine when at all possible. For example, you might:
- Schedule time to reflect on how the trauma is affecting you. This may include speaking to other people about the stress you are feeling while still respecting your loved one's privacy.
- Take time to do activities that will allow you to physically and mentally disconnect from your support role. Do not feel guilty about needing time for yourself and your mental health.
- Be cognizant of how stress may be hiding in your body. Mindful movements, relaxation strategies, time spent quietly in nature, and maintaining a healthy sleep schedule can combat residual stress.
- Speak to your doctor or a trained counsellor if you believe you may need more help to deal with what you are experiencing than you can manage on your own.
- Explore resources for friends and families of survivors. As compassion fatigue becomes better understood, more organizations have developed workshops, guides and support groups to assist people dealing with its symptoms.
Finally, familiarize yourself with your rights. While you may be able to take occasional days off work to support your loved one in a time of crisis or for your own self-care, long-term leaves will depend on your own or your employer's extended health benefits. Federal employment insurance provides a family caregiver benefit when providing care to a child (up to 35 weeks) or an adult (up to 15 weeks) whose life is at risk due to their baseline state of health changing significantly because of illness or injury. Their condition must be certified by a medical doctor or nurse practitioner.
Help Is Available.
When a survivor confides in a person and tells them about what happened to them, they are doing something courageous. Experiencing sexual violence can significantly affect a person's ability to put trust in another person. When they receive an empathetic and comforting response and emotional support, they are reassured that they are not alone. Sustaining this support in the aftermath of this trauma can be very challenging for their friends or family, but anyone who witnesses their loved one begin the healing process will tell you it is well worth the effort.
By recognizing signs that you may be suffering from compassion fatigue, and by learning self-care strategies and identifying what support is available, you can ensure that you are giving yourself what you need in order to be there for your loved one over the long term.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.