For Family Members
Sexual misconduct (e.g. sexual assault, dating/domestic violence, stalking) can happen to anyone. As parents/guardians and family members, it can be very difficult and overwhelming to hear that your child, sibling, parent or other family member has experienced sexual violence or abuse. When it happens, it can be hard to know how to act or what to say. Every person responds differently to sexual misconduct. Frequent survivor responses include feelings of fear, distress, humiliation, anger, confusion, numbness, and guilt. The single most important thing you can do is help the survivor feel safe and supported. It is important that they be allowed to experience and process through their feelings without the fear of having these feelings invalidated or dismissed.
It’s okay to have doubts about what to say or how to react when someone tells you they have been the victim of sexual violence or abuse. It’s also important to recognize and honor your own needs, and accept that there may be changes in your relationship with the survivor as they heal.
Talking to the Survivor
Consider the following information when talking to the survivor about an incident of sexual misconduct:
- Believe the survivor when they confides in you (even if they sometimes doubt themselves, their memories are vague, or if what they tell you sounds extreme). Don’t become frustrated if the story changes. The details will likely come out in bits and pieces.
- Allow them to disclose at their own pace. Do not place blame on the survivor and do not pressure them to talk. By letting the survivor set the pace, you show that you are focused on their needs. Remember that every person’s healing process is unique.
- Listen and help the survivor process through all of the confusing and painful feelings. Validate their anger, pain, and fear. These are natural responses that need to be felt, expressed, and heard. Validate the damage (all sexual violence and abuse is harmful, even if there are no physical scars or visible indicators of struggle).
- Control your own emotions. Don’t panic. If you show great emotion, the survivor may find it harder to talk with you and may even feel guilty for upsetting you. Share your feelings, but make sure your feelings don’t overwhelm the survivor’s feelings. As a loved one of a survivor, you may have reactions of anger, sadness, and shame. Find a supportive person or counselor with whom you can share your strong feelings with so that your conversations with the survivor can focus on their needs.
- Try to separate the anger you may feel at the survivor for having broken any rules or using poor judgment from the anger that you feel at the person that caused the harm. This individual is the only one responsible for the sexual misconduct. No matter how badly you need to vocalize your anger, don’t vent it on the survivor or other family members.
- Recognize the survivor’s need for privacy. Their boundaries have been violated and reclaiming personal space is important. Respect the time and space it takes to heal after an incident of sexual misconduct.
- Give control to the survivor. This means allowing them to speak for themselves. Sexual violence can take away an individual’s power and make the survivor feel invaded, changed, and out of control. It is crucial for survivors to be able to make their own decisions in order to regain power over their own lives.
What To Say
Reassure the survivor that they have your love and support. Listen to the reasons if they didn’t tell you immediately. They may have been scared of your reaction, felt shame or embarrassment, or tried to protect you. It is very common for survivors to wait before sharing with people they love. Try to understand without judgment.
- It is okay to tell the survivor 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.
- When talking to the survivor, avoid taking on the role of detective, judge or jury. Your primary role is to provide support, not to “solve” the case. Asking for too many details can make the survivor think that you don’t believe them or may cause them to simply shut down. Realize that “legal justice” and “emotional healing” are two different things; for many survivors, legal justice is not the primary goal.
- Discuss the distinction with the survivor between “if only” and “guilt.” It is common for survivors to blame themselves for what happened. In some ways, this helps the survivor feel like they could have prevented the assault or abuse. Reassure them that it was not their fault and that the only person responsible is the person that caused the harm.
- Encourage the survivor to see themselves as a strong, courageous survivor who is reclaiming their life.
What Not To Say
- Criticize the survivor for being where they were or not resisting more forcefully. The only person responsible for the sexual assault is the person that caused the harm. Everyone has the basic human right to be free from threat, harassment, or attack. Whatever the survivor did to survive the situation was the right thing to do.
- Downplay what happened by saying it wasn’t that bad or that they should forget about it. Let them express exactly how they feel.
- Sympathize with the person that caused the harm. The survivor needs your absolute support.
- Blame the survivor, your spouse/partner, or yourself. Avoid asking “why” questions as much as possible because these often imply blame.
Getting Help For The Survivor
When responding to a survivor after an incident of sexual misconduct, here are some suggestions on how to get help and support for them:
- Talk with the survivor about taking the necessary steps they may need to take to protect and ensure their safety. CAN advocates are available to help with ideas for safety planning.
- Encourage the survivor to seek medical attention, but understand that they have the right to decide what medical attention is necessary. The survivor may opt to seek care and do an evidence collection kit at the local hospital, seek preventative treatment, or choose to do nothing at this time. Whatever the choice, it’s important that the survivor makes their own choices as a way to regain control of their body.
- Discuss options and ask them what they wants to do next. This may or may not include contacting an advocate at the Campus Advocacy Network (CAN), the Title IX Coordinator, the Office of the Dean of Students and/or the UIC Police. Reporting a sexual assault crime is often a very difficult, long, and painful process for survivors. It is not an appropriate option for everyone, but a trained advocate can help navigate the options.
- Help the survivor get the professional care and support they may need. Counseling can be very helpful in assisting the survivor and you through the healing process of coping with the sexual misconduct.
- Refer to the UIC Student Sexual Misconduct website for detailed information to share with the survivor on reporting sexual misconduct and campus and community resources.
Getting Support For Yourself
- As you provide support for the survivor, it’s also important to pay attention to how the information that you learn impacts you. Some of you may be survivors yourselves or have experienced the assault of someone else close to you that may trigger unresolved feelings from the past. Educate yourself about sexual misconduct and the healing process. Realize when you’ve reached your own limitations
- Many people will feel frustrated that they were unable to protect a loved one that was harmed. It’s normal to feel angry, depressed, helpless and/or overwhelmed when someone we love is assaulted. If you find yourself feeling this way, consider getting support. You may want to talk to a local mental health counselor or take the time to care for yourself (e.g. getting exercise, talking with friends, trying relaxation techniques)
- Taking care of one’s self at a time like this may feel selfish or unnecessary, but it’s important to remember that the survivor needs you. If they see you having difficulty, they may feel that they need to take care of you and therefore focus less on their own healing.