The month of April is both Child Abuse and Sexual Assault Awareness month, causes that are personally significant to me as a survivor of both as a child and as an adult. That’s why, as difficult as this topic is and was for me personally, I felt it was important to share a little information.
There are few subjects that can be as difficult to broach and talk about, but need to be, as child abuse and sexual assault, not least of which where there is overlap; no one wants to discuss something as terrible and deplorable as abuse and sexual assault, let alone when it’s perpetrated on children.
Starting a discussion isn’t easy for anyone involved whether “victim”, survivor, or friend or family of someone that is. Shame, guilt, anger, and fear are just a few of the emotions that play a huge role in the conversation about abuse and sexual assault, no matter how time has passed.
No one knows the “right thing” to say, if there even is such a thing, but there are a few comments that should never be said to a survivor of any trauma. Intentions are often good when loved and trusted friends and family members enter into conversation about these delicate and difficult topics, but even the best intentions sometimes end with poorly chosen words and possible unintentional consequences; words have weight and careful attention should be paid to them, particularly in such sensitive matters. And then there are some who speak without thinking and out of a lack of understanding or knowledge, out of ignorance, and that can be just as hurtful, even if not intentional.
Here are 7 relatively common responses that you should never say to a survivor of child abuse or sexual assault.
- A lot of people have been, so what? – This, to say the least, is a callous response; what’s worse is its disgustingly accurate depiction of the prevalence of sexual assault and abuse in our society. And in case you’re wondering if anyone actually says that to another person, yes, there are people that respond like this. In case it isn’t abundantly clear, this is a completely dismissive and belittling response in almost any scenario, so it’s hardly surprising that this should never be said. It doesn’t matter how many others have been treated badly, it makes each one, individually, no less terrible, and thus worthy of more compassion than this reply offers. This comment can often come with comparisons to other abuse stories, as if hearing how much worse someone else had it negates or makes someone else’s trauma any less real, tragic, or worth listening to.
- That was a long time ago, get over it/aren’t you over it, yet? – This is another obviously callous response, and chances are that it will most likely be heard by someone who has experienced complex trauma and may subsequently deal with C-PTSD. There is no rule book that everyone follows on dealing with trauma. There are patterns and correlations that can be made about the healing process, but in the end, no one has the right to put a time limit on how long someone has to heal, no matter how “small” a trauma it may seem from the outside, or how long ago it may have occurred. I would hope that this question stems more from a lack of knowledge and understanding of the complicated and highly individualistic process of healing instead of a purely insensitive response.
- Any comparison to any television show or movie depicting abuse or sexual assault- You may be surprised how many people will compare having seen a movie or TV show about abuse or assault to understanding someone’s actual story. There may be some elements that are right in the theatrical version, but there are somethings that will not and cannot be understood by anyone that hasn’t lived through the experience (not usually a fan of her work, but Lady Gaga nailed it with this song, Til it Happens to You) . I understand that comparison to something as easily absorbed as a movie or TV show is also a way for those that truly don’t fathom an experience like assault or abuse can help put it into a context they understand. But it’s vitally important that you distinguish between actors portraying an experience and following lines in their script, and the real people sharing real trauma that has no script and never has to make sense in the end after 45-120 minutes. Don’t do this. (Conversely, there’s a chance a survivor may refer to a show or movie, or other mediums in some cases like books, as a way to convey an image, action or, feeling that they are not able to put into words themselves; then by all means, discuss, but follow their lead).
- You seem fine- While this may be what you hope to hear after taking a fall and fearing you’ve sprained your ankle, it is not one of the best responses to someone sharing such a difficult, personal, and painful topic as abuse and sexual assault. You never know what someone else is going through or how they’ve come to be who and where they are in their life and personal healing journey. There’s often a fear of not being believed in sharing stories of sexual assault or abuse perpetrated on you, particularly as a child, or if a lot of time has passed and you’re able to be even a passable functioning member of society. People do not fully realize the damage and changes wrought on the brain and what it means for the future cognitive development of a traumatized child and so don’t fully understand the possible future ramifications it will have for each individual (here is a paper with more information and details for anyone interested). In the end, it doesn’t matter how put together someone seems, you aren’t in their shoes or their mind and so have no idea how they really feel. There are better responses than as subjective an evaluation as “you seem fine”; keyword there is also seem.
- Why didn’t you say something sooner? – This may be at the forefront of your mind when someone discloses a history of trauma in the form of abuse or assault, especially if it is over the span of days, weeks, months, even years with silence prevailing, but it should never be asked. Chances are high that the survivor will tell you themselves, often with a heavy dose of shame, guilt, pain, and anger attached, but the question should never be posed. The reasons really aren’t important about why a survivor stayed quiet, so instead, perhaps discuss what made them decide to speak now; focusing on the future is better all-around than trying to make sense of past events that don’t have to make sense.
- Everything happens for a reason- This one is incredibly easy to say to someone without realizing, and on the surface it can sound like a promising, possibly even hopeful or positive comment. The idea that struggles and trials we go through are meant to happen and that we are equally meant to rise above it in some way, that it was necessary for some unknown, yet to be realized reason can sound reassuring, but this is not always true. The problem is that this can be an incredibly difficult and troubling sentiment for someone that has experienced sexual assault or abuse, and this can especially be true of those with C-PTSD. You don’t need to fill every silence with something, and sentiments like this can do more harm than good in the end, so leave this one out of the conversation.
- Any statement that starts with or includes “at least”- At “best” such starts are usually followed by things like “at least you made it through”, “at least you survived”, “at least you’re strong/resilient, etc.”, which can sound positive and supportive but can also come across along the same lines of “everything happens for a reason”. Intentions are usually good, but there are better ways to convey actual sentiments instead of grasping at easy words. At worst you get comparisons like “at least you didn’t have *insert something horrible* happen to you like *insert other story or possible reference to television*”, or “at least you have family/friends, etc.”, or any other irrelevant point or topic that bypasses responding to the individual story relayed, which can be dismissive and belittling. Leave “at least” out of the conversation, no matter what you follow it up with.
There is no easy way to talk about such sensitive topics as child abuse and sexual assault, no matter the age of the trauma or point in time a dialogue begins. If you find yourself having this conversation with someone, the important things to remember are simple:
- No judgement or preconceived notions
- Don’t ask for more details, let the survivor decide what they want to share; also there’s a chance they can’t remember, or have very disjointed or confusing memories/feelings about what happened
- Offer love and support but be mindful of how the person best receives it (some people need physical touch, others it could induce a panic attack, dissociative episode, etc.)
- Read- learn about trauma. Here are some suggested reading for anyone wishing to understand more about trauma and recovery: ….The Body Remembers, Trauma and Recovery, The Body Keeps the Score. There are many other out there, but these I’m familiar with, personally. The first two were for a trauma class to get my degree in psychology. The third one is written by a man named Bessel van der Kolk, who wrote many articles I read in those same psychology classes and he is one of the most incredibly knowledgeable people on the subject of trauma and healing.
There is no easy way to converse when the topic is related to trauma, but it is important to have it, on whatever scale, in whatever fashion it comes. The best way to prevent child abuse and sexual assault is to spread awareness and information about them.
Thank you for reading, be sure to take care of yourself if this subject is a trigger in anyway. My best wishes and love to you all.