How to Support a Loved One

Most of the time, loved ones of survivors want to do anything they can to help— but aren’t sure what to do. Whether someone you love has disclosed to you already, or you just want to be prepared for the moment someone does, taking the time to proactively learn how to support a survivor as they disclose can make all the difference. When the time comes to support a survivor in your life, remember this important acronym about how to TALK. Learn more from RAINN's Family and Friends Toolkit

Thank Them for Telling You 

It’s important to take a moment to acknowledge how incredibly difficult it can be to tell someone about this type of trauma. Showing your appreciation for their trust at the beginning of the conversation may help your loved one feel more comfortable.

You can begin to show your support by saying something like: "Thank you for telling me this. It means a lot to me that you feel you can share this with me."

Ask How You Can Help

Even though your first instinct may be to try to give your loved one advice on what to do, it’s important to let them make their own choices about what to do next. You don’t have to have all the answers––you just have to listen and let them know that you are there for them to help in any way they need.

If this is the first time someone has disclosed the assault or if it has just happened, they may not be certain what support they need from you, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask. It’s always better to ask than to assume that you know what they want or need. Simply saying something like, “I care about you a lot, and I want you to know that I am here to help in any way I can,” can mean so much to someone who has just told you about their experience.

Listen Without Judgment

While it’s normal to have reactions like anger or shock when someone you care about shares an experience of sexual violence, sometimes those reactions can make a survivor feel like they are responsible for your feelings and discourage them from feeling that they can open up.

Listening without judgment can be one of the most healing things you can do for someone you love. What does this look like?

Examples of supportive, non-judgmental reactions:

  • Give your undivided attention. If someone starts telling you what happened to them, put down whatever you’re doing and pay attention to them. Nothing on your phone or on the TV will be as important as what they’re sharing with you. If you’re driving or doing something else where giving your full attention to the conversation might put you at risk, you can say something like, “Thank you so much for telling me this. I want to be able to give you my full attention and listen to you in the way you deserve. Let me pull over/end this call/etc. so we can continue.”
  • Focus on their feelings. Listen to whatever the survivor is telling you in a calm and empathetic manner. Even if you’re feeling angry or upset or shocked, try to keep those emotions within yourself and focus your attention on supporting the person in front of you.

Use supportive phrases, such as:

  • “I’m sorry this happened to you.”
  • “I believe you.”
  • “You are not alone.”
  • “It’s not your fault.”

Examples of What NOT to Do:

  • Don’t ask if they’re absolutely sure it happened. This will likely make them feel that you do not believe them.
  • Don’t say that what they’ve described doesn’t sound like sexual assault to you, or that it “isn’t that bad.”
  • Don’t ask for details about what happened––such as if they knew the perpetrator, what they were wearing, if they had anything to drink, etc. Those details don’t matter right now; what matters is making sure that the survivor feels supported. Questions about the details can make someone feel blamed for what happened to them.
  • Don’t tell them that they should have gotten over it by now. There is no timeline for healing, and each survivor’s journey is different.
  • Don’t insist that they have to do certain things––such as report to police, get a sexual assault forensic exam, or disclose to others. It is fine to let someone know that these options exist and to ask them if they are interested in pursuing any of them, but you should never pressure a survivor or attempt to control their healing process. Forcing the situation can make a survivor feel that control over their choices is being taken away, which may be retraumatizing after having experienced a lack of control over their body and physical safety during sexual assault.

Keep Supporting

Healing takes time, and it’s crucial that survivors have the ongoing support and love they deserve throughout this process. Every survivor’s healing journey is a unique and ongoing process, so continued care will look different for every person.

For many survivors, feeling that their normal life has been taken away from them can be especially hard. Continue to offer to do things together that your loved one has always enjoyed. For instance, if you enjoy cooking together or following the same TV shows, make sure you’re reaching out to initiate those activities. Even if your loved one doesn’t want to talk about what happened, it can be helpful to spend time together and feel normal.

Need to talk this through with someone? If you’d like support after learning that someone in your life has experienced sexual violence or if you are a survivor yourself and want to talk, feel free to call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at (y en español We’re here to help you.

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