What To Do When Someone Discloses Sexual Abuse?

Caring For most people it's quite difficult to know what to do when someone discloses something that causes them great distress and pain. May that be a serious illness, a life changing loss, or a traumatic experience like sexual abuse. In a recent conversation with a group of nurses I have been asked how specifically do you give emotional support and care to someone who discloses sexual abuse. Following are responses that help survivors in their recovery:

Research has shown that survivors of sexual abuse often feel support and understanding is missing when they disclose having been abused. Research has also shown that survivors, who are not getting appropriate support when they disclose having been abused, are more prone to develop post traumatic stress symptoms and other mental and physical problems. It is obvious, that we need a new vision of how to engage with survivors of (child) sexual abuse if we want to avoid costly problems to develop caused by

  • survivors due to a loss of quality of life and loss of overall functioning
  • society due to and increase of social assistance needed and increasing health costs.

How to react when someone discloses sexual abuse is not only a problem for professionals but also a problem for friends, family, acquaintances, and colleagues.  Of course, professionals have different responsibilities than friends and family. Professionals have the duty to advise the survivor about available services and avenues for support and provide him/her with the necessary information.n to give informed consent to whatever procedure or intervention is pursued.

Besides being informed about the services available survivors need professionals and family/friends to be emotionally available. They need to give recognition in the form of care and emotional support. Here some good advice:

1.       Don’t go into fix-it mode.  Whether you are a professional or a private person, survivors don’t come to you to FIX IT. Firstly, what happened is unfixable. It has happened and the time can not be turned back. They might have lived with the secret about the abuse for years. They might have tried all sorts of ways to fix it themselves.  Don’t insult survivors by treating them like idiots who couldn’t come up with the most obvious ways of helping themselves. Just because they are hurting doesn’t mean they have no brains.

2.       Be there! Survivors need to tell someone their story. The memories of the abuse are like toxic projectiles creating havoc in survivors’ minds and need to come out. You only have to be there, listen, and be touched by their story.  They might need to know that their distress is warranted. Even if the abuse has occurred many years ago, something could have triggered the emotions, thoughts, and distress symptoms at this point in time. Reassure the survivor that their distress is understandable. Every person with a history of sexual abuse might feel the same distress. It’s a normal response to an experience that should never have happened.

3.       Offer your support! Don’t give advice. Giving advice without being asked for it is disrespectful. It implies that the survivor is unable to think for her/himself. However, signal to the survivor that you are available for support and let her/him know where you limitations regarding giving support are. Being clear about your boundaries will make it easier for survivors to approach you.

4.       Re-assure the survivor! When survivors disclose their experiences of abuse they are usually in a state of distress and overwhelm. They might not be able to see that they could be ever ok again. It’s important that you re-assure them that they will be ok coming out the other end.  They have survived the ‘real thing’ as a child with little or no support, little or no understanding, little or no resources. They will survive talking about it and working through it now as an adult with support, help, adult understanding and resources, and with adult means of giving a voice to their distress.

When you follow these few simple steps you have the best chance to be everything the survivor needs when s/he put trust in you and discloses to you the most traumatic experience of her/his life.

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