Do you have a friend, relative or lover who survived childhood sexual assault? Here’s 6 of the top 10 things not to say or do.
1) Breaking the kvetching order – Don’t expect the survivor to provide emotional support to you about your feelings about their trauma. Go to other people with that. Support her or him, but refrain from offering advice or judgement.
2) Giving advice. If you haven’t survived childhood sexual abuse, really you’ve got nothing useful about this. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Keep your advice, particularly about forgiveness, moving on, or dealing with abusive or complicit relatives and parents to yourself. For more information on why this is so, please read this post on what it’s like to have PTSD and complex PTSD.
A related issue is platitudes. Phrases like “Parents do the best they can with what they know at the time.” “Mothers/fathers always put their children first.” “Family comes first.” for example, are often completely false in families containing abusers and can make your loved one feel like they are an alien from another planet.
The closest experience a non-survivor can get to what a survivor is going through are experiences of deep loss and grief. Think about how you felt when someone close to you died, or the biggest tragedy you have experienced or could imagine experiencing. That’s probably closest to the experience your loved one is having. If you’ve had one or more experiences of trauma then you might also be able to relate. By trauma, I don’t mean just stressful events. Here’s what I mean by trauma:
direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or other threat to one’s physical integrity; or witnessing anevent that involves death, injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of another person; or learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threatof death or injury experienced by a family member or other close associate(Criterion A1). The person’s response to the event must involve intense fear,helplessness, or horror (or in children, the response must involve disorganized or agitated behavior) (Criterion A2). (p. 463 The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR; American PsychiatricAssociation [APA], 2000))
3) Investigating – It’s not your job to determine if your loved one is telling the truth about what happened to her or him. She or he is probably doing a good job doubting his/her own reality right now. Just stay out of grilling her him for details and trying to make sense of it. She/he will sort most of it out eventually, but based on how the memory works in cases of trauma, it’s not as straightforward a process as you might expect.
4) Not wanting to talk about it – Yes, child sexual assault is disturbing, but it’s a fact of your loved one’s reality, and part of her daily existence. She/he should be able to refer to it in conversation without a big ‘disturbance in the force’ or you changing the topic. It’s a big deal, but don’t make a big deal of it either.
5) Trying to fix it. – You can’t. The best you can do is to walk beside your loved one, to listen and to care.
6) Expecting it to be over quickly – grieving childhood sexual assault, particularly recurring assault, takes about 10 years from the time the person is actively healing. Think about people who have tragically lost one of their children to accident, illness or murder. Do you expect them to ever stop grieving? Yes, it may die down, but there will always be times when grief is active.
I am sure there are more of these – anyone got any others to add?