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How to support adult survivors of child sex abuse

Most friends and family members of clergy abuse survivors want to show support for their loved one. Knowing how to do that can be difficult. What's the right thing to say? Is there anything you should - or shouldn't - do?

Here are a few tips to help guide you in these emotional situations.

Affirm you believe them

Survivors often live with fear, anxiety and shame because of their trauma. One of the best things you can do is simply say, "I believe you." Don't qualify it by expressing doubt, and don't ask why it happened. Just let them know you believe what they're telling you.

Acknowledge what they experienced

Not only can it be helpful for a survivor to know they are believed, hearing empathetic phrases can also be supportive. You can do this by offering responses such as:

  • I am sorry this happened to you
  • It's not your fault
  • You didn't deserve what happened
  • This doesn't define you as a person
  • You are courageous for sharing this

Let them know you will listen

When you're close with someone, you can tell when they might be struggling. Help them open up by politely extending an invitation to talk - and letting them know you're available any time they need some support. They may share their story of survival, or maybe they aren't quite ready. Whatever the case, let them know you will be there for them when they want to talk.

Understand your role

It's easy to feel anger on behalf of someone who was wronged, and even have a desire to get justice for what happened. You may also want things to return to "normal." Remember, survivors heal in different ways and at different paces. Some may choose to go to authorities or pursue a lawsuit. Others may not be ready to take those steps, now or ever. That choice is up to them.

Try to avoid making comments such as "Cheer up," or, "I'll help find whoever did this." These can make the victim feel pressured, like they are doing something wrong.

Help them find support - when they're ready

Maybe most importantly, know your limits. There are experts and organizations trained to help a survivor work through some of the more difficult parts of their recovery. You should not try to shoulder that responsibility on your own. Simply by believing a loved one, listening to them, offering reliable support and being patient, you are doing plenty of things right.

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