Supporting a friend after an assault, or during/after an abusive relationship, is hard. Often your friend might not recognize their partner as abusive, at least initially, or will struggle to name their experience of violence as such, particularly if they don’t identify as female, or if they were assaulted (as most people are) by a good friend or partner. It’s scary to watch someone you love grapple with violence, regardless of whether it’s ongoing or ended, and the best ways to support them are often counterintuitive. Below are some tips on how to help — and take care of yourself too.
Listen to and believe your friend. If someone comes to you with an experience of violence, recognize that it takes a lot of courage to come forward. Be fully present, and listen to what they are saying without judgment and with empathy. Do not interrupt them, try to solve the problem for them, or tell them how to feel. There is no “correct” way to deal with sexual violence or assault. Know that many survivors choose not to report to the police, for any number of reasons; this is normal and a valid choice, and does not reflect at all on the legitimacy of their experience.
Try: Thank you for telling me about this… or What can I do to help you? Try not to press for answers to questions they don’t seem comfortable discussing.
Maintain confidentiality, but know your limits. Avoid telling other friends about what your friend has disclosed, even if you think that the survivor wouldn’t mind or the friend wouldn’t tell; but also know that you are not a trained therapist.
Try: I’m available if you want to talk, but it might be helpful to talk to a counselor about your options.I can help you find a good person to talk to. I’m here for you.
Be there for the victim in the capacity they need. This may mean listening to them recount the experience, or going out for a fun dinner to take their mind off of the event. Make sure to respond to your friend’s needs and, if he or she is uncommunicative, to gently remind them that you are available. Remember, though, that you don’t have to support your friend alone. Encourage your friend to seek professional help of the kind you are untrained to provide.
Direct your friend to other resources. Educate yourself about options for counseling and outside sources of help. Learn about Title IX and about the services and accommodations your school may be obligated to provide to your friend to help them feel safe.
Trust that your friend knows what’s best for them. Don’t force them to do something, just because you believe it is the “right thing to do.” There are many valid, healthy choices a survivor can make in the wake of violence. As someone who has not experienced violence, it can be impossible to put yourself in their shoes.
Ask your friend how you can help. Sometimes the best thing you can do is just be a good listener, but sometimes it can be helpful to offer to walk a friend to class or to a therapy appointment, approach a teacher or parent with them, or help them develop a plan to stay safe at home and at school.
Being told that your friend’s assailant is an acquaintance or mutual friend can be extremely difficult. However, remember that your friend has probably struggled with this idea a lot before coming to you and that you still have a responsibility as a friend to be supportive in light of their pain. When your friend seems ready, ask him or her how she would like you to behave toward their assailant. Respect that decision.
Support dating violence survivors. It can be hard to watch a friend experience dating violence, but it’s important to stay connected and committed to helping your friend even (and especially!) if they choose not to end the relationship. Know that isolated someone from their circle of friends and support is a common tactic abusers use; to resist that, try to stay in touch and available if/when your friend needs help or support. Express your concern for their safety without using judgmental language and offer to help them get help.
Take care of yourself. Supporting a friend can be difficult. Make sure that you are taking the time to take care of your needs.
This page is a combination of “Supporting High School Survivors: Friends” by Nina Gurak and Iris Z. and “Support a Survivor” by Katarina Hyatt.