You may know someone who has suffered with childhood sexual abuse or assault. What do you say to them? How do you listen and unpack this with them if you are interested in being supportive?
There are many ways to help someone that you care about who has trusted you enough to tell you that they have been abused or assaulted sexually as children, adolescents or young adults. The most impactful thing you can do is to encourage the person to seek professional help with a psychotherapist, counsellor or psychologist. You can even offer to help them find a therapist and consider helping them arrive at and leave from the first appointment. Another thing that you can do is to listen when the person wants to talk. It can be helpful to understand that the person will be experiencing stress, sadness and grief periodically as they recall what has happened to them - whether they are speaking out-loud about it or are experiencing it internally, silently. Often the person that has experienced this trauma is not in control of when, where and how the bad memories appear in his or her current life.
In my opinion, as a therapist, one thing you should not say to the person is "Why didn't you tell someone?" Though it seems like a naturally curious or reasonable question to ask, the reason to not ask this question is that it is exactly what the person who has suffered with the sexual assault or abuse does not want people to say and why they often do not talk to other people about it. In fact they often wonder as adults "Why didn't I say anything?" and then think that there is something wrong with them for never speaking-up as a child. The feelings of shame and guilt that are associated with this questioning of past actions is nearly insurmountable. The emotions are so strong and so confusing that it can actually feel quite damaging for someone to hear this question when they are trying to share their story about their trauma.
The main reason why children, adolescents and young adults do not speak-up and say anything to the adults that are around them when they are being sexually abused or assaulted (or have been) is that they simply can't do it. This is not because they are weak or something is wrong with them. They simply do not have the words for nor the capacity to articulate the sheer horror they have experienced or are experiencing. They also usually have extreme fear of what might happen for speaking-up. Usually they have been strongly coerced and threatened by the perpetrator that they fear for their own safety or other loved ones' safety. Often they have been manipulated into a secret pact with the perpetrator that they can't fully comprehend or navigate their way through to security. Some victims will worry about the domino-effect-type consequences of what might happen in telling. Some victims will worry about what their parents will think and how this news might destroy them, especially if the perpetrator is a family member (like a sibling), an extended family member (an aunt, uncle, grandparent or in-law), a family friend, religious leader, neighbour or school staff member. Sometimes the perpetrator is the parent and when this is the case, it is virtually impossible for the victim to speak-up because of the sacred nature of the parent-child bond and the significance this carries for the child/adolescent/young adult.
The human brain grows and changes as people do. The mental, reasoning and cognitive abilities of a child or young person are not the same as they are for an adult. As an example, the prefrontal cortex, an important part of our brain that is responsible for executive functioning (important decision making), does not fully develop in males until around the age of 28. Yet, we as adults look back at what happened in the past, whether we are the ones that suffered the sexual assault/abuse or we are the ones that are trying to support someone that has been assaulted/abused and wonder "why they didn't do back then what they can do now?" The answer, once again, is because they could not. They now have more tools, power, mental faculties and support as adults than they did when the trauma was occurring. This is why young people are so vulnerable to sexual abuse and assault.
Of course, as a supportive person, you do not intend to impede the therapeutic process for the person that you know who is a victim. So, don't ask that question, "Why didn't you tell someone?". It only adds to the feelings of shame and guilt that the victim feels and gets in the way of the important grief processing and healing that they desperately need. It also detracts from the help you are generously trying to provide.
Blogging about mental health topics that are relevant to counselling and psychotherapy. All material is authored by Cori Lambert unless explicitly stated otherwise. Authentic Consulting and Counselling is located in West Perth, Greater Perth Area.
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