‘Can I tell you something?’

imlisteningtosadsongsThere are some conversations that don’t have a script.  And when a friend tells you that they’ve been abused, there are no easy answers.

But here’s some thoughts on listening:

Don’t silence them. Let the person know that you want to listen to them and hear how they are feeling if and when they feel ready and able to talk. But equally, don’t push it if they don’t want to and allow them to talk at their own pace.

Don’t promise confidentiality. After listening, you might agree to keep it between you, but this is not something you will know in advance, (for example, if they are still being abused and are in danger).  However let them know that, in the rarest circumstances and only for their own protection, you may have to let someone else know, but they will treat their story with same utmost respect.

Recognise that there are many different and complicated responses to these experiences. Their responses may also vary from day to day – seeming numb or indifferent at some points or angry and emotional at others.

Don’t criticise. Don’t ask too many questions, especially ones that start with ‘why’.  If you want more clarity then be sensitive: e.g: “I’m going to ask you a few questions, not because I think you did anything wrong,  but so I can understand better – is that okay?”

Be careful with the anger you feel about this abuse. Your friend will need to know you care but they may also be nervous about upsetting you.

Be compassionate and respect what the person is telling you, even though you may not understand or find it difficult to accept what happened.

Remind them that it was not their fault and they did not invite it. There’s a huge difference between wishing something hadn’t happened and taking responsibility for it.

Don’t make assumptions about who or what was involved. Sexual abuse can occur both within and outside the family. However, most sexual abuse victims know their abusers and oftentimes it is a male relative, such as a stepfather, uncle, grandfather or brother. Although less common, there are incidents in which the abuser is female.

Be patient.  Those who have experienced abuse may struggle with low self esteem, self-hatred, guilt and depression. They may also find it difficult to establish and maintain relationships or trust. Don’t take it personally.

Be sensitive in terms of physical communication: for obvious reasons, they may find this threatening.

Don’t expect linear recovery and don’t try to take charge. Allow them to work it through in their own time, and let them know that if they want it, you will help them get support.

Be aware of possible treatment options e.g: psychotherapy (the most common form of treatment used to help sexual abuse victims). If psychiatric problems have resulted from the sexual abuse, (e.g; self-harm, eating disorders, substance abuse), treatment targeting these difficulties also might be important. But – respect their autonomy. If they’re not ready to speak to someone like the police or a therapist, don’t push them. This makes them feel like they’re being forced to do something they don’t want to do, (which is precisely what they’re struggling to deal with). Equally, don’t try and speak for them unless they ask for your help.  It’s important that their own voice is heard.

Tell them you are available to talk about this again – that you’re taking it seriously and you care.  That you are grateful to them for trusting you enough to talk. That you don’t think any less of them and you’re not making any judgements.

Don’t, whatever you do, do nothing. Once your friend has let you in on their most painful and personal truths, you can’t carry on later as though nothing has happened. You will be tempted to bury your head in the sand just as your friend will be, but if you do, your friend will start to doubt whether the abuse was such a big deal after all. Don’t feel however, that you have to constantly bring the issue up: allow them to lead and respect their desire to talk or to be private.

Make sure you have support networks in place for yourself.


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11 thoughts on “‘Can I tell you something?’

  1. Good points, well made.
    As a survivor here are some my most important ones – being believed, being shown that I am loved and not worthless or dirty – and that it was not my fault, any of it, being believed, being given the chance to start to learn what safe attachment is, being believed….Did I mention being believed…
    Could say lots more, but thank you for your thoughtful post

  2. Thank you once again for a sensible and compassionate post. My husband has, up until recently been supportive but is now getting heartily sick of my “issues”, has accused me of living in the past and dropped the “pull yourself together” bomb! How to cope with feeling abandoned all over again, just as I was learning to trust!

  3. Praying for you and your hubby now Wendy. I’m so sorry you’re going through this x

  4. Thanks, this is a great post. I would add that if a friend tells you about having been abused to be encouraged that it is a massive compliment that they are able to trust you that much. The first time I spoke to someone about it is without a doubt the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. Even now, 8 years later and having worked through a lot, it is something I would only talk about with people I really know I can trust. Speaking out is also the best thing I have ever done. It wasn’t a quick-fix solution, and it was a long and painful journey, but just having someone to listen and believe me was a real turning point. You don’t have to have all the answers- you just have to care and be there.

  5. Thanks so much for writing this, Emma, it’s so valuable.
    My advice to add to the list:
    1. Be aware of how your reaction sounds – you may have never heard a similar story before, and so you’re surprised, but that can feel a lot like disbelief, which is very hard to bear.
    2. Be careful about demonstrating your grief over your friend’s situation – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve finished a conversation feeling guilty for making a friend cry because I told them my sad story!
    3. I’d echo the point about being careful about how many questions you ask – I’m used to telling my story, but the stuff I don’t talk about is the stuff I can’t/won’t talk about.

  6. Good job Emma – also really like Ellie’s points 2 and 3! I think i would also say be aware that even if it was a long time ago, it can still have consequences now, and the littlest things can bring it up like it was yesterday. Often for me, it’s things like smells or sounds…things that would mean nothing to anyone else…

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