How do you best support a survivor of childhood abuse?
July 24, 2005 7:14 PM   Subscribe

How do you best support a survivor of childhood abuse?

A male friend of mine, who suffered horrific sexual/physical abuse (from parents and others) as a child, has expressed an interest in trying to discuss his past with me. It obviously is extremely difficult for him to talk about, so attempts are punctuated with extremely long silences, occasionally some choking up, and apologies from him for hurting me or burdening me with this information. He also tells me he doesn't know where to start or how to explain his feelings. Past efforts have revealed he feels the abuse is partially his fault, he feels responsible for not having protected his siblings, etc. He seems slightly reassured that I disagree on this, but it hasn't succeeded in changing his mind.

I need to know how to encourage his venting, because he doesn't have that kind of outlet in his life. I need some things to do or say that go beyond "I'm so sorry" and "you were just a kid, it wasn't your fault."

The catch is, this is a long-distance relationship so all we have is phone and IM (so I can't hug him or hold his hand, etc). And he already refuses professional help so I can't refer him to a counselor.

Any suggestions are greatly appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total)
It sounds like you're already doing pretty well.
posted by alms at 7:21 PM on July 24, 2005

"He seems slightly reassured that I disagree on this, but it hasn't succeeded in changing his mind."

That will take lots of time. Being able to share the truth must be a huge relief. He chose you to open up to for a reason. Just keep listening.
posted by garbo at 7:36 PM on July 24, 2005

I would focus efforts on convincing him to seek professional help.
It sounds heavy, and since (I assume) you're not trained to deal with this sort of thing and thus make as much good come out of the experience as possible, his dumping on you is unfair not only to you, but to him as well. His expressing himself may be somewhat cathartic, but without some strategic guidance, he may never learn how to effectively manage himself.
Professional counselors are people too, and most of them know exactly what they're doing. It's not a big deal. It sounds like you care. Do him a big favor and ensure that he sees one.
posted by Pseudonumb at 7:44 PM on July 24, 2005

I second the professional help thing. Getting therapy might be a bit cliche these days, but past childhood trama is certanly something that deserves some looking at. It is possible to screw someone up by giving them bad 'therapy'.
posted by delmoi at 7:55 PM on July 24, 2005

Ok. You have his confidence and you want to encourage that. That's good.

"I'm so sorry" and "you were just a kid, it wasn't your fault."

That's a good start. I would, as the next step, thank him for feeling that he can confide in you. As difficult as it may be to listen to horrifying stories, it is a privilege.

Secondly, if your are truly interested, I would ask questions when it feels appropriate.

Your friend is probably trying to find closure in the telling of his stories. You can help facilitate that by asking questions.

Past efforts have revealed he feels the abuse is partially his fault, he feels responsible for not having protected his siblings, etc.

Ask him to help you understand why he feels that way. Ask if he really thinks that it could have been any different.

You have to use your own judgement here. And I am not a counselor either, but I have been in these situations over the years. None became any worse for my caring and asking questions.

Best of luck to you and your friend! I hope all goes well.

If you need further help, I do have access to professionals in the field.
posted by snsranch at 8:01 PM on July 24, 2005

In college one of my roommates was fairly large and muscular; he looked like he could have been a beginning bodybuilder. One day I was dozing off watching TV, and he was standing in front of the mirror looking at himself, shirtless. He slapped himself in the stomach and said, disgusted, that he was fat. He was not fat. It turns out that he had been overweight in high school and people always gave him hell for it.

Getting back to your friend, I'd say it's very important to try to convey to him, as kindly as you can, that he is not the child he used to be and that the child he used to be couldn't be expected to know everything he knows now. He grew up in a dangerous and confusing situation, the kind of situation that paralyzes even adults with indecision. It's easy to look at it now and think of all the things he would have done in a perfect world, but it's not realistic and not productive. And he is in no way responsible for his abuse, or his siblings'. I know that's a common reaction and a common fear--I've been there--but it's just not true. The sad and simple truth of it is that sometimes people are abusive--small, or petty, or malicious. It's ugly and hateful and doesn't make much sense, but that's how it is.

I think a good thing for your friend to do would be to remind himself that he didn't deserve the abuse, and that he doesn't deserve it still, that no one does, and that his best course of action is to do everything he can to treat others with kindness and respect. And it's easy for him to imagine everything he might have done better, but--aside from indicating that he has a good heart--it isn't very useful (unless he wants to use it to tease out guiding principles in life, an ideal to strive for from day to day).

/My two cents, or maybe it comes out to less.
posted by Tuwa at 8:13 PM on July 24, 2005

Like you and snsranch, I have been in similar situations over the years, but am not myself a councelor. If you are willing to take this on, it could take a lot out of you. It might be worth getting some kind of support for yourself: some professional guidence could give you some dos and don'ts and also provide a place for you to discuss the emotional burden that you are now sharing with your friend.

When talking to him, assure him (as appropriate) that it's okay for him to tell you these things, that you think he is an amazing person for having survived this crap and still managed to be the great person that he is, that you do not now and never will think less of him for what he went through. Basically everything snsranch said too.

You may also want to tell him that one of the most common feelings that abused children have is that they were at fault. Abusers can mix negative and positive reinforcement such that the instances of sexual abuse include the only "loving" behaviour the abuser shows towards the child. This can result in the child having conflicting feelings of wanting the love which is tied up with the abuse, making them feel like they wanted the abuse. Assure your friend that adults are very good at manipulating children's desires and ideas, and that his feelings of guilt are very normal for people in his situation. However, it is the adults who were responsible.

Another thing that might be useful (if it applies) is suggesting that all children have sexual desires, and it is the responsibility of the adults around the children to ignore/redirect those desires. If an adult acts on (or tries to construct) a child's desire, that child is in no way responsible for the adult's behaviour and their desires were innocent and normal.

The most important thing, I think, is to not get freaked out by what he tells you, at least not too obviously. This is one reason why having some professional help of your own might be useful. As long as you are still the friend that he feels comfortable with, you will be able to help him.

Lastly, it is not at all true that you can't help him or that he has to see a professional to get over this. I'm a big fan of professional help, but if he's that unwilling, it's much better for him to have you than no one. But if he asks for something that you don't know the answer to, or if he's telling you things that make you feel like they need immediate attention, don't be afraid to remind him that you aren't a professional. You can say something like "I'm your friend, and I'm always glad that you can confide in me, and I'll always be happy to listen to whatever you want to tell me, but I just don't know what to do/say about (whatever he just said). I'm afraid of giving you bad advice because I really want you to be well and happy. Do you think that you are ready to consider telling this to a counselor as well?"

Best of luck to both of you. He's lucky to have a friend like you.
posted by carmen at 8:23 PM on July 24, 2005

It may be that he needs his ability to talk about this to "incubate" a little before he can benefit from professional help. In fact, the long-distance thing might be the key for his ability to even talk with you about it.

It sounds like you are being a supportive friend, and I don't hear you complaining about being burdened, so I wouldn't worry too much about what's "fair." It probably makes sense to give some thought to how available you can be, and be firm if you feel like you're being asked for more than you're comfortable with. Hopefully, though, it will never be an issue.

While I, too, suspect that professional help is ultimately what this guy needs, he also needs caring, dependable friends. Without stable, trusting relationships, he can't benefit from any amount of therapy. So I hope that you continue to be a good friend to him, and that he gets healthier, whatever that ends up requiring.
posted by caitlinb at 8:27 PM on July 24, 2005 [1 favorite]

It's too bad he isn't willing to see a professional, but I'm not surprised. I am a professional working with this population right now, and there is (of course) a lot of distrust that results from that kind of childhood. A quick web search yields these links: Link 1, Link 2, Link 3, Link 4, Link 5
posted by abbyladybug at 8:28 PM on July 24, 2005

If he can get ahold of some of Joyce Meyer's material-no kidding. She is a survivor of abuse and incest and shares that very frankly in some of her material. She also went thru feeling it was her fault as her abuser insisted that she act as if she wanted what was happening to her.

If not that then I know there are other books out there. At the least perhaps you should find them and read them yourself.

Thank you for being willing to listen to what he has to say. That right there is a very healing thing, whether or not you are a trained counselor. Eventually of course he should seek a professional, but be assured you are doing well by him as it is.
posted by konolia at 8:35 PM on July 24, 2005

i know one of the people who run he's great, and i think the website is really wonderful and helpful. i recommend checking it out and maybe suggesting your friend take a look too. also, while looking for that site (i couldn't remember the name), i found this resource too:

but none of it will substitute for the ear of a trusted friend! good for you for trying your best to help.
posted by equipoise at 9:10 PM on July 24, 2005

IMO, do not tell him why he is wrong to think certain things.

Rather, ask leading questions that plant seeds of viewpoints and thinking structures. Help him, over time, come to teach himself, through his own thinking, achieve the same knowledge as you.

IOW, he needs to learn for himself why it was not his fault.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:14 PM on July 24, 2005

Yeah. Just listen. You don't need to say much. "uh huh," "yes," "Yes?" "I see," "and then what?" "How did that make you feel?" are some of the word-noises I make when someone is going through this process with me. They are not relevant except to indicate that I am still paying attention; they convey no other meaning. They particularly do not convey my opinions about what I am hearing.

Your opinions on the material being presented to you are not really important here. What's important is that the person feel safe and comfortable in speaking to you. It appears to me that, when a person speaks about difficult topics, part of the process is organizing the material into a comprehensible form, rather than a horrifying, unapproachable behemoth; and then bouncing it off the wall of social interaction. Things become easier to comprehend and work through as this process goes on.

Sometimes this can be difficult for you to listen to. If that's the case, you may yourself benefit from finding someone to talk to about it. Without other doctors to chat with, to buffer the horrors I've witnessed, I'd've gone suicidally insane years ago.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:16 PM on July 24, 2005

This is just an idea, but maybe ask him to start a journal that you promise you'll read. like ikkyu2 said, sometimes just forming the knots into comprehensible sentences is wonderful therapy, and writing them down, into a form others want to read, is sometimes an even better cure. It's like an astringent to a clogged nose. It's also a good for when your friend is thinking of something and you're not there. Might help.
posted by saysthis at 2:53 AM on July 25, 2005

You're doing great. He's doing great. I would spend more time just listening to him. I might have a conversation with him where you say that just listening is pretty much all you can offer given your respective positions. Bring up the notion of a pro every so often, although he may not need to see one. I'm not sure what his objection is, if he feels like it would be too stigmatizing, you mentioning it positively might help with that; if it is expense, many cities have free rape crisis counseling centers that also handle sexual abuse.

In many ways it can be harder for me to deal with sexual abuse because to the limited extent our society is prepared to support people who've been abused, most of that support is directed to women/girls.
posted by OmieWise at 4:36 AM on July 25, 2005

I was a victim of abuse, and personally I had no urge to share with a medical professional, counselor or otherwise. I went to a few sessions, and decided it wasn't worth the money to have a stranger who didn't actually care, try to talk me through my deepest, darkest problems.

I found that it was better to open up to my close friends and explain to them what happened to me. The only thing you can do in this instance is to be there. Listen to him when he's ready to share. Don't be judgemental, or curious. Accept the things he says as he is willing to say it.

Something else that helped me through my issues was realizing that without the abuse that happened, I would not be the person that I am today. Realizing the people involved in the situation were just human, and people do shitty things without fully understanding the ramifications of their actions did alot for me too.
posted by jackofsaxons at 9:29 AM on July 25, 2005

I volunteer at a Sexual Assault Centre that counsels survivors over the phone. Most of our callers are adult survivors of childhood sexual assault.

As a starting point, we use the principles LVOA--Listen, Validate, Options, Applause. These are the most important things to do, especially the first two (letting him know you are there and that his feelings are understandable and normal), and it sounds like you are already doing them. For the last one, you may want to pick out something that he's done to make himself feel better, even if it's just calling you, and praise him for it (it can feel unnatural, but I really think it helps). Options are the hardest. Sometimes options are just things you explore that will help him deal with negative feelings when they come up. It's important when exploring options that you're not giving advice, but letting him discover what makes him feel better and highlighting those things.

You are definitely saying the right things in that he was just a kid and all that. It's important to gently reframe the misconceptions he has about the abuse, especially the idea that it was his responsibility to protect his siblings.

Even if he's not willing to seek counseling, you could recommend a couple of books to him that he could read on his own, and even offer to order them and send them to him in neutral packaging. One is The Sexual Healing Journey by Wendy Maltz (which deal specifically with the sexual effects, which can be profound) and the other is Victims No Longer by Mike Lew (which covers all aspects of survival and is written for male survivors by a male survivor). Both are very good. They could be good starting points for your own research if he won't read them, as they might provide you with information to give him about his misconceptions.

If you have any specific questions that you would like information on, please feel free to email me. Email is in my profile.
posted by purtek at 1:48 PM on July 25, 2005

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