Helping a Friend
If your friend or loved one has been sexually assaulted, you can expect that they may be experiencing a combination of fear, anger, guilt, shame, mistrust, and disconnection. They may have experienced the fear of losing their life and as a result are afraid of everything around them. Your friend may be angry at the perpetrator, but also angry at themselves and at friends and family. As most assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim knows, they may be feeling a lack of trust for those around them. The extreme stress, anxiety, loss of sleep and control makes many survivors feel as though they are disconnected from normal life.
You can help your friend. You can help them focus on their strengths and provide a place for them to vent their emotions, even anger. You can help them understand that no one is responsible for being raped and that they have the right to feel a lack of trust for others. You can help them understand that it is normal to feel unstable under such difficult circumstances. Here's how you can help.
Be a Good Listener
Let them know that they can talk to you. Listen carefully and respond to feelings as well as words. By reflecting what you are hearing back to the person, you can help them better understand their own emotions and thoughts during this difficult time. Some survivors will want to talk about their experiences. Keep their privacy. It is a survivor's decision when and whether to tell others about what happened. Don't push them to reveal details about the incident or ask questions just because you're curious.
Survivors need to know that you believe what happened. It's rare that people make up stories about sexual assault. Don't question details of the assault. If the perpetrator is someone you know, don't say, "I can't believe they would do that!"
Important things to communicate to the survivor:
- "It's not your fault."
- "I'm glad you're safe now."
- "I'm sorry it happened."
Validate the Survivor's Feelings
Acknowledge their sadness, anger, fear, or confusion. Let them know that all of these feelings are normal after a sexual assault. Assure them that they aren't alone. Also:
- If a survivor was drunk during the assault, assure them that they aren't to blame for what happened.
- If a survivor feels guilty because they didn't fight back, assure them that fear sometimes inhibits us.
- Tell them that they did the best they could to survive the situation and that no one deserves to be sexually assaulted.
- Don't blame survivors for what happened by asking them things like why they were drinking, why they didn't fight back, what they were wearing, or by telling them what you would have done.
Let Survivors Control their own Lives
Provide survivors with information about their options. If the survivor chooses one, support them by providing phone numbers or information. Allow them to make a decision for themselves and assure them that you will support whatever decision they make. Don't try to take control of the situation. Let them make that decision for themselves. Don't threaten to hurt the perpetrator, the survivor has lived through one violent experience and does not need to be confronted with another.
Respect the Survivor's Privacy
Don't tell others what your friend tells you. Let the survivor decide whom they will tell. Encourage them to seek support and assistance from others. If the timing feels right, share USD resources with them.
Stay with Them Through the Healing Process
Express your concern over the long run. Healing takes time. Talk about other aspects of survivors' lives. This reassures survivors that they have not become the sexual assault. Survivors will have good and difficult days. Stay with them through both.
Take Care of Yourself
Hearing about the sexual assault of a friend or family member is upsetting. You may feel scared, angry, helpless, sad or all of these emotions and more. You may want to talk about your feelings. Campus resources are available to all students impacted by sexual assault. Consider contacting the Counseling Center or a CARE Advocate.
As a parent guardian, learning that your student has been a victim/survivor of sexual violence may be particularly difficult to bear. The situation can be much harder to deal with when they are away at college and you can't physically be there for them. If your student turns to you for help after a sexual assault, there are many ways that you can show your support despite the distance.
It is important to know that it is natural to feel angry, hurt and to have feelings of self-blame or helplessness. As a parent or guardian, your first reaction may be to try to "fix" the situation or make everything okay, even while knowing this approach is not a viable option under these circumstances. Here are some strategies that you may find useful as you seek to help them heal from this trauma:
Listen and believe them.
Believe the survivor when they confide in you. Don’t pressure them to talk about details of the incident. It is better to go slowly and let them set the pace for your conversation. Listen actively and non-judgmentally. Help them process their feelings. Validate their anger, pain, fear, powerlessness, and sadness. These are natural responses that need to be felt, expressed, and heard. It is okay to tell them that this is a difficult topic for you to talk about. Let them know that you are open to talk about anything, even if it is uncomfortable or emotionally challenging.
Assure them that it is not their fault.
Self-blame is common among victims of sexual violence. It is important that, as their parent or guardian, you help them understand that no matter what happened—it was not their fault. Do not blame them, or yourself. Avoid asking “why” questions as much as possible because these often imply blame. Focus on their needs. If they didn’t tell you immediately about the assault, listen to their reasons. It is very common for survivors to wait before sharing with people they love. Reassure them that they have your love and support, no matter how much or how little they wish to disclose.
Allow your student to control next steps.
It is natural to want to try to fix the problem, but know that healing from this event will take time and your student must maintain the ability to choose how they wish to go about that healing process. You might feel tempted to push them to seek legal justice or other types of "solutions," but everyone pursues this process differently and at their own pace. You can provide guidance and information about their options for additional support and next steps, such as seeking support from campus and community resources, speaking with a legal advocate, or filing a report with the police. However, these choices lie with your student, and is important that they feel empowered to make their own decisions.
Understand if they do not tell you about the assault immediately.
Be understanding if they chose not to tell you about the assault immediately or if they did not come to you first. There are a number of reasons why they might avoid telling you about it, but rather than focusing on why they delayed coming to you, you should direct your energy into helping them heal. Try not to ask them to defend or justify their decision.
Be aware of your emotions.
Be honest with your student about your feelings. It is okay to grieve with them, but be aware of how you present your emotions with your child. You will probably feel many things including sadness, anger, guilt or even shame, but try not to let your feelings overshadow those of your student. It is hard for children to see their parents or guardians struggle, and they might feel guilty for upsetting you.
Supporting your student through trauma can be a difficult and emotionally draining experience for those in the support role as well. Recognize this and don't hesitate to seek help and support for yourself when you need it. You cannot effectively support your loved ones without being mindful of your own health and well-being.
University of Virginia Sexual Assault Education and Resources. (n.d.). How to help as a parent. Retrieved September 2, 2014, from http://www.virginia.edu/sexualviolence/sexualassault/supportingasurvivor/parent.html
Boston University: Sexual Assault and Prevention Center. A Guide for Parents of Survivors of Sexual assault. Retrieved June 30th, 2016, from http://www.bu.edu/sarp/guide-for-parents/
As faculty and staff members, you may find yourself in the position of suspecting that a student has been impacted by sexual assault, relationship abuse or stalking. You may also be faced with responding to a direct disclosure.
These types of experiences can be very traumatic for any individual, including students. They can impact students' ability to eat, sleep and concentrate in class or on their assignments. Over time, trauma can have serious long-term, negative effects on a student's educational experience. Faculty and staff often are among the first to notice that a student is struggling. However, they may not fully understand what they are seeing or know how to help. In these situations, faculty and staff members can play an important role in helping a student access the support and resources that can help the student begin to heal.
The Three Rs to Remember When Working With Students Impacted By Trauma
In some instances, a student may disclose an assault or other trauma they have experienced either verbally or in writing. When this happens, the student is letting you know that they have made the decision to trust you. This can feel like both an honor and a responsibility. In other instances, a student may not disclose, but you may begin to notice subtle or not so subtle changes in a student's behavior or academics that suggest that something might be wrong. These may occur immediately after the incident or weeks or even months later. They may include:
Lack of attendance – the student may stop attending class or attend intermittently. This may be caused by depression or irregular sleep patterns brought on by trauma.
Incomplete or missing tests and assignments – trauma can impede a person's ability to concentrate, making it difficult to study or complete assignments.
Withdrawal – the student may become noticeably less social, no longer participating in events, conversations and activities as s/he did in the past
Increased risk taking – in contrast or in combination with being withdrawn, the student may begin to engage in more high risk behaviors such as excessive drinking or self- harm as a means of coping or escape.
Research conducted over the past several decades consistently confirms the therapeutic importance of supportive, non-judgmental responses to disclosures of sexual and relationship violence. When a survivor discloses, the most important thing you can do is listen and show your compassion and concern. Responses like "I am so sorry," "what happened wasn't your fault," and "how can I support you?" help promote survivors' healing and let them know that they are not alone. Survivors report that responses that appear to blame the victim or that attempt to investigate or solve the crime have the negative impact of causing the survivor to shut down and avoid seeking further help or support.
If you suspect that the student may have been impacted by a traumatic experience, but haven't received confirmation through a disclosure, it can be helpful to reach out to the student and simply ask if there is something wrong. Many students don't feel that they can ask for help, especially from faculty members. When approaching a student, let them know that you have noticed that something that concerns you and that you just want to make sure that they are okay, or if not, that they get the help they needs. It's important to let the student know that some disclosures need to be reported to the University, so that it might be best important to keep details vague. If the student would like further assistance, you will help them connect with an office on campus where they can talk confidentially.
Title IX obligates any faculty and staff, except those protected by confidentiality (the Counseling Center, Center for Health & Wellness Promotion clinical staff and pastoral counselors and clergy within University Ministry) with knowledge of a sexual assault/act of sexual violence involving a student to report that information to the Title IX Coordinator. Please be aware of the following on-campus private resources, or people that will share information with other resources on an as-needed basis to assist the student in accessing services:
619-260-2222 (24 hours)
An Advocate can help answer questions about the multiple processes involved in reporting, facilitate appropriate referrals to resources for USD students who have been impacted by sexual assault, harassment, and/or partner violence and are available to accompany students to Public Safety, and/or an interview with Law Enforcement.
Department of Public Safety
619-260-2222 (24 hours)
Hughes Administration Center 151
Public Safety Officers respond to crimes, medical emergencies and can provide other general assistance. Officers can facilitate reporting through the San Diego Police Department.
Title IX Coordinator
Maher Hall 101
The Title IX Coordinator is responsible for coordinating USD’s compliance with Title IX which prohibits sex discrimination, including sexual or relationship violence. The Title IX Coordinator is available to meet with students or others as needed to provide information about options for complaint resolution, to facilitate an effective response to a complaint, and to address the way in which USD responds to incidents of alleged sexual misconduct and relationship violence.
For additional University policy information, please visit the Title IX Website.
University of New Hampshire Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program. (n.d.).Responding to student disclosure. Retrieved September 2, 2014, from http://unh.edu/sharpp/responding-student-disclosures
Campus Assault Resources and Education (CARE)
5998 Alcalá Park
San Diego, CA 92110