But here’s some thoughts on listening:
Don’t silence them. Let the person know that you want to listen to them and hear how they are feeling if and when they feel ready and able to talk. But equally, don’t push it if they don’t want to and allow them to talk at their own pace.
Don’t promise confidentiality. After listening, you might agree to keep it between you, but this is not something you will know in advance, (for example, if they are still being abused and are in danger). However let them know that, in the rarest circumstances and only for their own protection, you may have to let someone else know, but they will treat their story with same utmost respect.
Recognise that there are many different and complicated responses to these experiences. Their responses may also vary from day to day – seeming numb or indifferent at some points or angry and emotional at others.
Don’t criticise. Don’t ask too many questions, especially ones that start with ‘why’. If you want more clarity then be sensitive: e.g: “I’m going to ask you a few questions, not because I think you did anything wrong, but so I can understand better – is that okay?”
Be careful with the anger you feel about this abuse. Your friend will need to know you care but they may also be nervous about upsetting you.
Be compassionate and respect what the person is telling you, even though you may not understand or find it difficult to accept what happened.
Remind them that it was not their fault and they did not invite it. There’s a huge difference between wishing something hadn’t happened and taking responsibility for it.
Don’t make assumptions about who or what was involved. Sexual abuse can occur both within and outside the family. However, most sexual abuse victims know their abusers and oftentimes it is a male relative, such as a stepfather, uncle, grandfather or brother. Although less common, there are incidents in which the abuser is female.
Be patient. Those who have experienced abuse may struggle with low self esteem, self-hatred, guilt and depression. They may also find it difficult to establish and maintain relationships or trust. Don’t take it personally.
Be sensitive in terms of physical communication: for obvious reasons, they may find this threatening.
Don’t expect linear recovery and don’t try to take charge. Allow them to work it through in their own time, and let them know that if they want it, you will help them get support.
Be aware of possible treatment options e.g: psychotherapy (the most common form of treatment used to help sexual abuse victims). If psychiatric problems have resulted from the sexual abuse, (e.g; self-harm, eating disorders, substance abuse), treatment targeting these difficulties also might be important. But – respect their autonomy. If they’re not ready to speak to someone like the police or a therapist, don’t push them. This makes them feel like they’re being forced to do something they don’t want to do, (which is precisely what they’re struggling to deal with). Equally, don’t try and speak for them unless they ask for your help. It’s important that their own voice is heard.
Tell them you are available to talk about this again – that you’re taking it seriously and you care. That you are grateful to them for trusting you enough to talk. That you don’t think any less of them and you’re not making any judgements.
Don’t, whatever you do, do nothing. Once your friend has let you in on their most painful and personal truths, you can’t carry on later as though nothing has happened. You will be tempted to bury your head in the sand just as your friend will be, but if you do, your friend will start to doubt whether the abuse was such a big deal after all. Don’t feel however, that you have to constantly bring the issue up: allow them to lead and respect their desire to talk or to be private.
Make sure you have support networks in place for yourself.