Supporting Someone

Supporting someone

When someone experiences violence or abuse, they often feel violated at a really deep and personal level. When someone is harmed, information does not get encoded in the same way and it can be difficult to describe what happened in a sequential way. It can take time to sort it all out. A person in this situation may quickly reach out for help or attempt to resolve the situation on their own. There is no right or wrong way to handle it.

Below you will find helpful info and tips for supporting someone.

What are common reactions?

As an observer, you may notice someone is experiencing a range of emotional, physical, and behavioral reactions. There’s no “typical” response for those who have been harmed, but some reactions include:

Emotional Reactions  
Anger Numbness
Anxiety Lack of trust
Depression Suicidal thoughts
Fear Low self-esteem
Self-blame Sense of loss
Physical Effects Behavioral Changes
Tense, on edge, hypervigilant Withdrawn social behaviors
Appetite change Increased alcohol or other drug use
Sleep change Seeking or rejecting physical or sexual intimacy
Weight gain or loss Missing classes, practice, meetings

Keep in mind, these signs are not exclusive to violence, but could be an indication of something else significant going on. Without making any assumptions, consider reaching out, asking open-ended questions, and offering support.  

What if you suspect someone has been harmed?

If you think something happened, but they didn’t come right out and tell you, it’s important to avoid making assumptions. Consider initiating a conversation by saying “I care about you and if you were ever harmed, I would be there for you.” That may be enough to encourage a disclosure if and when someone is ready.

What to do when someone discloses to you?

If a person who has been harmed directly shares their experience with you, there is an opening for you to be supportive.  It is important to know that there are many options to consider and some are time-sensitive. Gathering information is critical to making informed decisions about things like getting medical attention, having evidence collected, reporting to campus, and involving police. Fortunately, there are many resources to help those who have been harmed and their supporters, like you.

To be an effective support person for a friend, keep in mind the following tips:

  • Listen to your friend. Let your friend know that you’re available to listen when they’re ready to talk. Use active listening skills to let your friend tell the story in their own way at a comfortable pace. Give your friend your patience and undivided attention.
  • Be non­-judgmental and supportive. Tell your friend that you are there for them and show them by saying “what happened to you was not okay”. Offer to help in an open-ended way, “how can I help you?” rather than making assumptions or dictating the terms of your help.
  • Believe your friend. Show appreciation that your friend chose to disclose to you. Refrain from asking questions “why” questions or challenging your friend’s recollection of the details.
  • Attend to identity considerations. A person’s intersecting identities impacts how they understand their experience and can influence the resources and service providers they pursue. For those with one or more marginalized identities, certain resources may feel unavailable, inaccessible, or even threatening, and these feelings should be acknowledged and respected. 
  • Avoid labels. Those who have been harmed may or may not identify as a victim or a survivor. It is important to allow your friend to choose the label, if any, that best fits them.
  • Assure your friend that they are not to blame for what happened to them. It’s important to validate your friend for feelings of self-blame if they have them, but not linger there. Be sure to point out that people who harm someone make a choice to do so and are accountable for their choices.
  • Respect your friend’s right to make their own choices. Encourage your friend to explore options that seem meaningful for them. Be mindful to avoid statements like “you should…” or “if I was you, I would…” to ensure you are giving support rather than making demands or setting expectations.
  • Help your friend get connected to resources that will assist them. Get to know the list of resources available on and off-campus and point them out to your friend. Offer to accompany your friend to a trained professional for additional support.  

Practice self-care

It’s natural to want the best for your friend. In your concern for them, remember to take care of yourself, too. Providing support is important; it can also be challenging. If you’re supporting someone over a long period of time or in an intense way, you might find it hard to keep caring for them at the level you want to unless you do things that help you recharge. Be sure to pay attention to your own emotions, do things that make you feel good (like writing, exercising, socializing with friends, or enjoying a hobby), and seek outside support like SHARE to help you and your friend. Remember, you don’t have to support them alone.

Adapted from Dartmouth College and Columbia University.