What to Say When a Survivor Discloses their Abuse to You

Horse and girl

You may be unsure how to respond to someone who discloses that they’ve been sexually assaulted to you. Being there as a trusted ally is an incredibly important and difficult role. The following tips can help you navigate the disclosure conversation with care and compassion.

Put your feelings in a bucket

If someone shares their experience with you, you may have your own set of intense feelings. This is perfectly normal. Remember, though, it is not about you. While it is ok to feel rage, fear, shock, grief, and an array of other things, set those feelings aside and simply listen.

Communicate without judgment

As you listen, do not to pass judgment, minimize or question the experience. An assault of any kind is never the survivor’s fault.

Empathize and validate

Believe the survivor and assure them of your support. Survivors of abuse often blame themselves and feel a deep sense of confusion and shame. Create a safe space for them to disclose.

Don’t ask for details

It is not your job to know every detail of the entire story. Asking the survivor to recount their abuse could potentially retraumatize them. Let the individual decide what they want to share.

Use affirming language

“I believe you. / It took a lot of courage to tell me about this.”
“It’s not your fault. / You didn’t do anything to deserve this.”
“You are not alone. / I care about you and am here to listen or help in any way I can.”
“I’m sorry this happened. / This shouldn’t have happened to you.”

Ask permission before engaging in any physical contact

It’s natural to want to hug or offer a comforting touch to someone in pain. For sexual assault survivors uninitiated physical contact can feel like a violation. Ask first and always respect their boundaries.

Report if it is a child, support if it is an adult

If the person reporting an incident of sexual abuse to you is a minor, contact law enforcement or other family services in your area. Doctors, teachers, clergy members, and social workers are mandatory reporters and are required by law to report child abuse.

If the victim is an adult, any action they take and when they take it is for the person who has been traumatized to decide. Respect their autonomy and maintain confidentiality.

Keep checking in

Healing is a long process that can take years. Be patient. A quick “how are you holding up?” or “I am here if you ever need to talk” goes a long way in helping survivors feel supported.

Take care of yourself

A troubling aspect of sexual violence is that listening to someone else’s story can often bring up old experiences of our own. Take care of yourself. Make sure that you have someone you can speak with to support you and that you prioritize self-care.


Additional resources:

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network

Me Too Movement

A Guide for Family and Friends of Sexual Assault Survivors

William & Mary: Helping a Survivor of Sexual Assault