U-M Counseling and Psychological Services

If you know someone who has experienced sexual violence, it can be difficult to know what to say and how to help. Below are some suggestions to effectively support your student, friend, or loved one. 

Overview:

  1. Believe them. When someone discloses an experience of sexual violence, it is not the time to interrogate or question the validity of their claim. Rather, it is a time to hear and believe them.

  2. Respond with love and support. Being supportive to someone who has survived trauma does not necessarily require having expertise about trauma treatment. Let the person know that you care about them and want to be there for them. Your presence and openness to their needs is more powerful than having the “perfect” thing to say.

  3. Assist in referring. Reaching out for help can be difficult after experiencing sexual violence. In particular, the experience(s) may lower a person’s sense of trust in others. Offering to assist a survivor in going to a campus or a community resource may provide additional comfort.

If You Are a Parent or Guardian:

Believe Them and Show Up

No parent or guardian wants to believe that their child experienced sexualized violence. It often can be easier to deny the experience or blame your child for it rather than face the emotional pain. However, in order to help your child address their own experience and begin to heal, it is important that you communicate that you believe them and support them in a gentle and non-judgemental way. This opens the opportunity for further communication as you convey that they are emotionally safe with you and are able to process their recovery with you. Remind them that no matter what the circumstances, it was not their fault. It is also important to communicate to your child that you are available and willing to listen. Recovery often takes time, and it is important to consistently show up for your child and not rush them into recovery. Allow them to take the time that they need to heal. When listening to your child, it may be tempting to try and give advice to make the situation better, but often this is not helpful. Instead, your child likely needs to take their time to experience different emotions. Do not try to fix it, but rather listen and be supportive. In supporting them with options, discuss the possible value of professional counseling services in order to process their experience further and to utilize support from their community.

Support and Respect their Decisions

Experiencing sexualized violence takes away control from the survivor. Therefore, it is important that you respect your child’s decisions as they move forward in their healing process, as this can help them to regain control. Be thoughtful in your responses to their decisions and provide non-judgemental support even if you disagree with the decision your child is making.

Take Care of Yourself

Your child’s healing may be your top priority, but it is important to make your own health and well-being a priority as well. Watching your child process a traumatic experience(s) can create your own emotional distress. It is much more difficult to provide help to your child if you are not getting your own support. Therefore, it is important to take time to do some self-care and receive the support and help you need from friends, your community, and/or professional counseling services.

If You Are a Friend, Partner, or Loved One: As a friend, partner, or loved one, you can be a supportive presence for someone who discloses sexual violence.

Keep telling survivors that it is not their fault. “It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything to deserve this.”

Never blame the survivor. Don't let them blame themselves. Sexual assault is never the survivors' fault, under any circumstances.

Tell the survivors that their survival is all that really matters

It will be reassuring for survivors to hear that what is most important is that they survived and got through the experience as best they could. Questions like "Why did you go there alone?" are blaming, not reassuring.

Assure survivors that you believe that they were sexually assaulted. “I believe you. It took a lot of courage to tell me this.”

If you communicate that you believe them, you will be helping survivors a great deal. If they say they were sexually assaulted, then that is enough even if they didn't scream or there was no evidence of harm.

Tell survivors that you will support them by listening. “You are not alone. I’m here to listen or help in any way I can.”

Be supportive by listening, not judging or prying. Let them take their time to share the details. Let them share only what they are able to. Respect your friend’s way of sharing their story and the labels they choose for themselves (for example, not all people who experience sexual violence identify with the term “survivor.”) By using their own language and ways of identifying, you can support them in their healing process.

Ask survivors what they need from you instead of telling them how to handle the situation.

Empower those who may feel dis-empowered.

Let survivors be in control of who to tell about the assault, and how they manage their life.

This can help them feel that they are regaining the control they lost by being victimized.

Tell survivors that it is okay to talk about their feelings for as long as they need.

It is normal for survivors to feel angry, afraid, anxious and depressed. If these feelings intensify and continue to overwhelm them and they are not getting help, support them in getting help.

Engage in self-care.

Hearing stories of sexual violence from loved ones can invoke our own strong emotions including apprehension, fear, anger, frustration, and grief. It is important to be sure to take care of yourself when helping a survivor. Some ways to increase self-care include: watching light-hearted movies or TV shows, exercising, spending time outside, making time for sleep, and talking with others in your support system.

Assist in referring.

Reaching out for help can be difficult after experiencing sexual violence. In particular, the experience(s) may lower a person’s sense of trust in others. Offering to assist a friend in going to a campus or community resource may provide additional comfort.

If You’re a Faculty or Staff Member:

Safety First

Always keep safety in mind as you interact with a distressed student. If you have any concern for the safety of your student or for yourself, call campus police immediately at 734-763-1131.

Be open about your status as a Responsible Employee

As soon as possible in the conversation, let the student know that you appreciate their willingness to share their experience with you and that as a responsible employee, you are required to report instances of sexualized violence. Let them know that you can also help them connect to confidential resources, like Counseling and Psychological Services (734-764-8312) and/or the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (734-764-7771), that do not require reporting.

Be Sensitive and Supportive

If a student confides in you about their experience with sexualized violence, create a safe and supportive environment for them. You can do this by communicating to the student that you believe them and by listening to them. The student survivor has chosen you as a trusted resource. Do not press for details and let them decide what steps they would like to take, if any. Let the student know that sexual violence is not their fault. You are an important step in their healing process.

Do Not Assume You are Being Manipulated

Sexual violence is real! Survivors can exhibit a wide range of emotional responses. Know that students may struggle focusing in class and finishing assignments as they are processing their trauma. Sexual violence survivors have experienced a traumatic event that has caused them to experience an intense loss of power. Anything you can do to help restore a sense of power and agency would be a way to support their healing. Examples of this might be working with them to set up new deadlines or asking them what accommodations they might need in class. Consider discussing with the student extensions and effective ways to complete homework assignments and tests. Be understanding and flexible. While some students may appear distressed others may not outwardly show emotion. Believe them. Listen to them. Refer them to appropriate resources for help.

Know Your Limits and Refer to Other Resources

As sympathetic and understanding as you may be, some students will need more emotional support than you can provide. Referrals to CAPS (734-764-8312) and/or SAPAC (734-764-7771) can be an important step for many students’ healing. As a faculty or staff member, you may also consult with these resources on how to best support a student survivor by calling these numbers.