Emotional First Aid for Family & Friends
Sexual Assault is a violent crime, motivated by power and anger, using sex as a means of controlling the victim. It is not about sex or passion or love. Sexual assault survivors may experience a wide variety of physical, emotional, and behavioral response to an assault. Many families and friends of sexual assault survivors, the often neglected “secondary victims,” experience their own series of emotional and behavioral responses.
If your friend or family member has been assaulted, you are a secondary victim. You may experience things that you don’t understand or feel comfortable with. That is normal, but it is important for you to express those feelings with someone who understands what you are going through, both to facilitate your own recovery process and so that you can best support your loved one. Common responses of significant others to a rape include:
- Blaming the victim: This may help you feel some control about an out of control situation. You may feel that the rape was the victim’s fault because of where s/he was, who s/he was with, what s/he was wearing or doing at the time of the assault. Feeling this, although it may seem to help you cope, is in reality detrimental to your recovery and the victim’s. It is important to know and accept that rape is a crime, and that the victims are not responsible. The victim did not want to be raped and did not enjoy it. The rape was a violation of the person’s body and emotions, no matter who, what, where, why and or how the individual was assaulted.
- Treating the survivor as if s/he is ruined for life: Sexual Assault may disrupt many aspects of the survivor’s life and yours. A survivor may feel depressed, angry, withdrawn, fearful, or ashamed. You may feel any or all of these emotions too. Although your life will never be exactly the same as if the rape hadn’t happened, recovery is possible for the both of you.
- Guilt: You may feel that you should have been able to prevent the assault or protect your loved one. But most sexual assaults are premeditated in some manner, and isolated people are prime victims. You may not have been able to prevent the assault, even if you were there. At this point, recovery is the crucial point; not what anyone should or should not have done.
- Denial: It is hard to accept that someone you love has been assaulted, but denying the assault or its effects won’t work. You will still feel them. Blocks in communication will only impede the healing process for both of you.
- Anger: Anger is a very common response. You may feel angry at the victim, angry at the perpetrator, angry at yourself, and angry at the world. These are healthy feelings as long as it is expressed responsibly. Talking with a friend, a counselor, a sexual assault support services advocate may help diffuse the anger and release the feelings of helplessness and defenselessness which may be underneath.
Although these reactions are normal, they may if not appropriately expressed, add to re-victimization of the survivor. Being aware of your own emotional responses and the behaviors that often stem from them may lessen the chances of the survivor feeling re-victimized by the people the survivor loves and trusts. Some of these common behaviors are:
Patronizing and overprotecting. This may further disempower the survivor and may imply that s/he is to blame.
Attempting to rally support of family and friends. Although this may feel important to you, it may feel intrusive to the individual you are trying to help.
Secrecy. This may seem to be respecting a survivor’s privacy, but it also may deprive both of you the opportunity to mourn or imply that the assault it “too terrible to discuss.”
Resentment. You may need support and attention that you are not getting. Because of this, you may feel resentful towards the survivor and the people who are supporting him/her. Sexual Assault Support Services can help you find the resources you need for yourself. Only then will you be able to support your loved one.
You may be wondering how to support the person you care about. Only s/he will know exactly what s/he needs, but a group of survivors stated that these are things they most needed from family and friends.
Acceptance that is will take some time for life to get back to normal. That time may be difficult and painful, but, as much as you love and care about the person, you can’t make it go away. Listening and supporting without criticism and condemnation is vital.
Respect for a survivor’s need to be autonomous, to make decisions, to make mistakes. Regaining a sense of control about her/his life will be an important task. You can help with this by remembering that the person you care about is still the same person as before; s/he has just had a terrible experience and needs time to heal.
Acknowledgement Of your own feelings and reactions to the assault. Denying your feelings will only hinder your recovery for both of you. You may need help; that is okay. You are a victim too.
Helping The survivor utilizes coping skills. Although this trauma may be more severe than others you or s/he has experienced, coping skills used in the past may be helpful now. Remind the person you care about that s/he will return to normal functioning in the future; the assault has not ruined her/his life.
Encouraging The expression of feelings. Don’t be afraid to ask how the individual is feeling because it might cause an upset or remind her/him of something long forgotten. S/he hasn’t forgotten and is probably thinking about it. S/he may be wishing someone would ask.
The sexual Assault of a loved one will be difficult and painful for you too. You will have your own feelings, your own responses, you own healing process. You may not get all the support you need from family and friends; they will likely be focusing their energy on the survivor. It is important that you get what you need too. Please call. We understand and want to help.
This information can be triggering to some people. If you begin feeling stressed and overwhelmed, feel free to call the Support line for free confidential support from a trained and experienced Advocate. 1-800-871-7741