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How to Support a Friend

If a friend has been a victim of sexual harassment, sexual assault, relationship violence, or stalking, there is no “one way” they may feel. It is natural to want to help them. Keep in mind that everyone responds to trauma differently, and that there is no “right” or “wrong” reaction.

Your friend may experience any or all of these emotions:

  • Shock
  • Disbelief
  • Anger
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Denial
  • Fear
  • Helplessness
  • Embarrassment
  • Depression
  • An inability to concentrate or relax
  • Disturbances in eating and sleeping

Ways to be a Supportive Friend.

“Thank you for telling me.”

It takes courage to speak up. Your reaction may influence whether or not your friend chooses to share this information with others. Stay calm and non-judgmental. Show your friend that you value their trust and want to support them however you can.

Listen

You are NOT an investigator. As a friend, your job is to listen without judgment, not to investigate or question the accuracy of what they’re telling you. Avoid asking questions or digging for details. Give your friend the power to control what information they share.

“I am sorry you had this experience.”

Any type of sexual/gender-based discrimination and misconduct is violating and strips a person’s power and control from them. Expressing genuine sympathy indicates that you recognize the seriousness of what they shared with you. Providing this response may encourage someone to seek support when they're concerned that no one will take them seriously.

On the other hand, sometimes survivors are not ready to acknowledge the severity of their experience, particularly when the offender or abuser is a loved one. For this reason, the situation may be especially difficult or painful, even if they minimize it.

“It was not your fault.”

Self-blame and self-doubt are common reactions for victims of sexual/gender-based discrimination and misconduct. Pervasive rape culture myths suggest that these incidents are a result of what someone wore, how much they drank, who they hung out with, or other behaviors that “provoked” the offender. Sexual harassment, sexual assault, relationship violence, and stalking are acts of power and control, or a lack of respect for boundaries and affirmative consent – not love or lust.

“I believe you.”

Since 85-90 percent of survivors know their perpetrator, oftentimes it is someone who the survivor thought was a good or trustworthy person. You, yourself, may have thought the accused was a “good” person. People may choose carefully how they present themselves to the public. It is important to recognize that there may be another side to the offender that you were unaware of.

“What would you like to do?”

Your instinct might be to try to fix things, but let your friend take the lead.  In situations of sexual harassment, sexual assault, relationship violence, and stalking, a survivor’s power and control are taken away. To begin the course of healing, it is best for a survivor to regain that control and decision-making capacity, so they should decide what next steps they want to take. However, you can offer guidance on available resources and options, and encourage them to seek support.

Encourage your friend to get medical attention as soon as possible, if appropriate. Your friend can obtain medical attention from:

  • Student Health Center, Hazen Center for Integrated Care, Hazen Hall, (585) 395-2414
  • Strong West Emergency, 156 West Avenue, Brockport, (585) 758-1010.
  • Strong Memorial Hospital, 601 Elmwood Ave, Rochester, (585) 275-2100.
  • Unity Hospital, 1555 Long Pond Road, Rochester, NY 14626, (585) 723-7100.

“You are not alone.”

Survivors often feel alone or disconnected. By remaining a friend, you provide opportunities for companionship and stability, and engage in enjoyable activities to help them surface from their overwhelming emotions. While it’s important to provide support, you are not responsible for their  healing. Remind your friend of counseling resources and people who are available to help, so neither of you feel alone.

“I don’t know what to say, but I am available if you want to talk. It might be helpful to talk to another person and explore your options.”

It is okay if you don’t know what to say. This is a heavy topic and not one that everyone is comfortable – or informed enough – to talk about. It is perfectly acceptable to remind your friend that you will listen to them, but they may benefit from some resources.

How to Support Yourself

You matter too. Supporting a friend who is dealing with trauma can be time-consuming and emotionally draining. Remember that you cannot effectively support your friend unless you take care of your own emotional, physical and mental health. Most of the resources available to your friend are available to you, too. Some guidelines:

  • Keep the rest of your life on track. It is OK and necessary for you to keep up with your academic obligations, as well as other friends and relationships.
  • Pace yourself. You are a supportive friend, not a caretaker. Taking on a lopsided role in your friendship is unsustainable and can end up driving you away.
  • Don’t be afraid to redirect your friend to a counselor or other support person. These resources exist for a reason and are a safe place for your friend to process and heal. With that delegation, you are both freer to resume the things you enjoy in your friendship.

What NOT to Do/Say

“You need to report” or “What if this happens to someone else?”

Giving power and control back to the survivor means that it is their decision about whether or not to report. Moving forward through either the student conduct process or the criminal process is time consuming and emotionally difficult, so deciding to move forward without reporting is perfectly acceptable and is not a sign of weakness.

Similarly, causing someone to feel guilty if they do not make the choice you think they should make, is not supportive.

“Why didn’t you fight back/leave?”

The brain does fascinating things in traumatic incidents. In particular, it functions with the primitive part of the brain (fight/fight/freeze) rather than the rational pre-frontal cortex. Basically, how someone reacts in a traumatic event is uncontrollable, unpredictable, and unique. It’s survival mode, not a rational choice.

“I’m going to find them and make them pay.”

You’re angry someone hurt a person you care about. It’s natural to be upset and want to seek justice. However, “taking care of it” is not actually supportive or empowering for a survivor, and may cause them more stress, and in some cases, may put them or yourself in danger. Justice looks different for each survivor. The survivor might also be confused about their feelings toward their assailant, especially if that person is a significant other, friend, or family member. Do not put them in a position where they feel like they have to defend the perpetrator from you.

“But they’re such a good person.”

Offenders are oftentimes charming, engaging, and seemingly “normal” people. Voicing your doubt indicates to your friend that 1) you aren’t a safe, non-judgmental person to talk to; and 2) no one will believe them.

“At least…”

Statements that start off this way minimize a person’s experience and indicate that what happened to them wasn’t “that bad.” There are a range of sexual harassment, sexual assault, relationship  violence, and stalking behaviors, none of which is “better” than another. While you might intend for this comment to be encouraging and to “look on the bright side,” the effect of this type of statement may cause a survivor to feel like they are overreacting and should “just get over it.”

“Shouldn’t you be over it by now?”

An experience of sexual harassment, sexual assault, relationship violence, or stalking can be life-changing. Or not. Everyone processes at their own pace, and healing is not typically linear. There are steps forward and backward.

Understandably, your friend might want to avoid places, people, or activities that remind them of what happened. Most likely, they are as or more frustrated by missing out on having fun or feeling relaxed.  Reconsider the “back to normal” activities you expect your friend to be doing, and offer alternatives.

Pity

Pity is not empowering. Not only is it a constant reminder of the trauma, but it is patronizing. Check-ins are good, however.

Sexual violence does not define a person.  A more supportive option is to remind your friend of this, as well as their wonderful, strong, inspiring capabilities.

Last Updated 7/1/20

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