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 by a good friend or partner (as most people are). 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.
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.
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 isolating 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. More tips here.
Take care of yourself. Supporting a friend can be difficult. Make sure that you are taking the time to take care of your needs. Check out these resources on self-care.
As a teacher, you have tremendous potential to shape student behavior and norms — not only for students during their time in high school but also in their lives moving forward. You can be an ally to student activists trying to improve school climate, an advocate on “the inside” for better school policies, and a resource for students looking to better understand the issue. Read on for ways to get involved!
Be a resource. Educate yourself on school policy and what your job requires in terms of mandatory reporting. Believe and listen (with empathy and without judgment) to students who come to you with experiences of sexual violence. Help direct them to appropriate school and community resources.
Be clear and upfront with students about your role as a mandatory reporter. You can say something like: “I need to tell you that I am considered a mandated reporter. I must inform the school and/or law enforcement that abuse has occurred. If you do not want details of what occurred reported or are not interested in making a complaint at this time, you have the right to maintain your privacy. I will only report what you confide in me.” Make sure to tell the student about resources and support they can access confidentially.
Be supportive and understanding of student survivors and their needs. Sexual violence and dating abuse are difficult and traumatic experiences. Give student victims time to heal and advocate for and accommodate their needs (such as giving them extensions on work, working with the Title IX coordinator to expunge poor grades due to the lingering effects of violence, and allowing them to step outside the classroom if they feel triggered). Many of these accommodations are required under Title IX.
Label triggering material. If you are covering material about sexual violence — such as reading a book or watching a movie that contains scenes of sexual violence — consider giving students a warning about the potentially distressing content of the material, and giving students the opportunity to leave the room if necessary. Adding a brief note to a syllabus about such content and available resources can make a real difference in students’ lives. Here’s an example that you can adopt to your school’s particular context:
Sexual misconduct, including sexual assault and dating violence, is a form of gender discrimination that violates the civil rights law Title IX and is prohibited by [school name]’s policy. [School name] is committed to providing an education that is free from sexual misconduct and other civil rights violations. You can learn more about gender violence, Title IX, and your rights at: http://knowyourix.org/high-school/. If you or someone you know has been harassed or assaulted, you may call in confidentially to the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800-656-4673), contact the dating violence hotline (http://www.loveisrespect.org/for-yourself/contact-us/), or visit [your city name]’s rape crisis center at [address and telephone number].
Asterisks (*) next to assignments below mark material that may bring up painful memories or emotions for survivors of sexual violence. Please consider reaching out to me, [principal name], [Title IX coordinator name and contact info], and/or one of the confidential hotlines listed above if you need support or assistance.
Use teachable moments in the classroom. If the class is covering a book with violent content, take the opportunity to talk to your class about the issue and provide them with further resources.
Combat rape culture. Call out sexist jokes and racist, homophobic, and transphobic language. Teach students about how to be active bystanders.
Support student-led efforts. Consider sponsoring and mentoring a student group against gender-based violence. Ask students how you can best support their efforts. And help spread the word about Title IX by postering your school.
Talk to your school about Title IX compliance. If there is a Title IX compliance group, ask to get involved. If not, ask who your Title IX Coordinator is and share your concerns.
Work with the school to create a Sexual Assault Response Team or Title IX compliance group. Start a group to foster relationships with local rape crisis centers providing support for students; work with the nurse’s office to provide print resources for students that detail school and state policies and where to get help; educate students about their right to be safe at school; and work with the school guidance department to put together a resource of mental health professionals in the area who are trained to deal with issues of sexual violence.
Learning that your child has been assaulted or abused can be one of the most painful things you will ever endure. Below are some tips on how to engage respectfully and supportively if your child tells you they’ve been assaulted. Remember that, for some survivors, it’s easier to talk to friends than family about sexual violence. Don’t take this as a judgment on your relationship. Respond to the your child’s needs, but don’t impose your assistance.
Listen to and believe your child. Whether it happened an hour ago or 10 years ago, understand the courage it took to come forward to speak with you about their experiences. It can be extremely difficult to talk with family members about experiences of violence, so do not be offended if you were not the first person your child told or if their experience happened a long time ago.
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. Everyone reacts differently.
Try: Thank you for telling me about this… or What can I do to help you?, and avoid pressing for answers to questions they don’t seem comfortable with answering. Be fully present, and listen to what they are saying without judgment and with empathy. Be patient and understanding. It may be helpful to share your feelings about what your child has disclosed but try not to center your feelings in the discussion. Remember: this is about them, their hurt, and their needs moving forward.
Do not minimize the experience or make excuses for the perpetrator. Sexual violence and assault is completely unacceptable. End of story. Avoid language suggesting that “boys will just be boys,” or “but they seemed like such a nice girl/boy,” or that this is a normal rite of passage. No matter what the victim was drinking, wearing, or doing, t is the perpetator’s — not the victim’s — fault.
It can be especially hard for survivors to tell parents about violence because it often involves an acknowledgement of sexual relationships with others (since violence often happens between people in an existing sexual relationship). Do not be judgmental of the victim. Do not victim-blame or tie the violence to other consensual sexual, clothing, friend, or drinking choices.
If you find out from someone else that your child has been sexually assaulted, tread carefully. If you broach the subject with your child, make sure you allow them to define the experience in their own terms. Be careful about using words like “rape” or “sexual assault” in the conversation; try to use the same words they apply to their experience.
Recognize your child’s autonomy, even when the law doesn’t. Don’t force your child to participate in intrusive investigations without first discussing all options and assessing your child’s needs. Consult with your child before taking action on your own. If your child would like to seek outside help, try to accommodate as best you can. Many local rape crisis centers offer support services including counseling at little to no cost.
Try: What would make you feel safe at school? or Can I drive you to a counseling appointment?
Don’t automatically assume that you know what is best. Trust your child and treat their safety concerns are legitimate. Survivors know the situation, their perpetrator, and their feelings best. Especially for minors in abusive relationships, the most dangerous time is often when leaving the relationship. Encourage them to trust their instincts.
Try: What are your safety concerns?
Work together to develop a safety plan to make your child feel safe at home, school, or in the community. Help your child to identify the resources they can access when feeling unsafe or triggered.
Offer to help your child advocate with their school. Minors sometimes face discrimination for ‘just being kids’. Sometimes having a supportive parent in the room makes the student’s words more persuasive. Learn about your child’s Title IX rights and help them understand their rights too.
Seek support. Sometimes local rape crisis centers offer support groups for parents of sexual violence survivors. It can be helpful to know that you are not alone.
Educate yourself about the options. Your child may come to you to better understand their legal options. Understand and explain neutrally all options available to your child and support them in making their own decisions.
For more tips on supporting survivors as one of a family member, as well as do’s and don’ts for talking to your child, click here