It is difficult to know what to say or avoid saying when someone tells you that they have been a victim of sexual violence. We can experience very strong emotions on learning that someone close to us has been a victim. The most important thing is to believe them and show that you are available to help them recover.
If it is a child who reveals that they have been the victim of sexual violence, it is very important not to ask any leading questions, and not to promise to keep what you have learned secret. Write down what the child told you as accurately as you can as soon as possible.
Example of helpful reactions
Below is a list of helpful reactions that will help the victim to express themselves freely. If you need support, a Sexual Violence Helpline counsellor can provide guidance and help you find the right words.
- Listen to what the victim has to say. Let them express themselves in their own words, in their own way and at their own pace. Most important, do not pass judgement.
- DO NOT ask leading question or try to extract every detail. Although you may be nervous, try not to talk non-stop or speak in their place if they’re having trouble finding the right words.
- “Take all the time you need. I’m right here.”
- Receive what they are saying without minimizing or exaggerating the facts, emotions or consequences. Control your own reactions so that they will feel free to express their feelings, even if they’re not the same as yours.
- DO NOT trivialize, minimize or dramatize what you are hearing.
- “Do you want to tell me how you are feeling?”
Recognize their strength
- Help them to feel good about what they did right. Point out their strengths and their courage in talking about what happened to them.
- DO NOT talk about their weaknesses, or point out what they could have said or done differently.
- “I think you’re very brave to talk about this. It takes a lot of strength and courage to do what you’ve done.”
- Show that you’re available to talk or provide support. If, however, you don’t feel capable of helping the person, say so clearly and help them to identify someone else who could. Make sure they have a support network (friends and family).
- DO NOT ignore a cry for help on the pretext that it doesn’t concern you or that you don’t know how you could help.
- “I’m here if you need help with [whatever you feel able to provide].”
- Help the victim to understand that they are in no way to blame for the sexual violence that was done to them. Their responsibility is to take care of themselves in order to recover. The perpetrator of the violence is solely responsible for their acts.
- DO NOT make the victim feel guilty about something they could have done, with the implication that they must have done something to provoke the assault.
- “It was absolutely not your fault. That person is entirely responsible for what they did to you.”
- Help the person to regain control of their life, offering them the support they need/want. Give them room to breathe so that they can return to their usual level of functioning.
- DO NOT overprotect them (by preventing them from seeing friends or sleeping away from home, for example).
- “What do you need?”
Acknowledge and validate their feelings
- Help them to express what they’re feeling. Reassure them that their reactions (anger, resentment, guilt, low self-esteem) are normal.
- DO NOT just “turn the page” by preventing them from expressing negative emotions under the pretext that what’s done is done and it’s not good for them to dwell on the past.
- “It’s perfectly OK for you to feel like that. You have the right.”
To talk to someone, obtain support or find out what resources are available to you, call one of our Sexual Violence Helpline counsellors at 1 888 933-9007.