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Helping Survivors

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It’s important to recognise that each survivor’s needs are individual to them. However, there are some general needs which are universal to all survivors, and these are listed below. This is not an exhaustive list and you may feel other things should be added. If that’s the case, please let us know.

1. Survivors need to be loved. Many survivors are confused about what love is, because they confuse sex with love and affection. It’s important that there are people around survivors who can model healthy, loving relationships with no hidden motives. Survivors need to learn that people can genuinely love and care for them, wanting only the best for them at all times.

2. Survivors need to be accepted. It’s difficult for survivors to accept themselves, let alone others. Many will display low self-esteem and a low self-image due to their abuse experience. If they can be shown true acceptance within safe, secure relationships, they will gradually be able to accept themselves and learn to value and prize themselves in a healthy, nurturing way.

3. Survivors need to be nurtured. For many survivors the nurturing, protecting elements were missing in their childhood. Instead they were thrust into a confusing adult world where they were used for the sexual gratification of others. Those others may have been the very people who should have met the nurturing needs of the child. Those unmet needs are like a huge void that needs to be filled and the survivor’s support network can help to fill the gap.

4. Survivors need to learn to trust. For a survivor, trusting others can be difficult. Their abuse experience has taught them that people cannot be trusted so it takes time for trust to be established. As supporters model that they are trustworthy, the survivor will gradually be able to risk trusting others. Hand in hand with this goes the ability to trust themselves.

5. Survivors need to be believed. It is crucial that the person’s story of their abuse is believed, particularly when they have tried to tell someone in the past and were not believed. Their pain can be compounded when, as sometimes happens, they are accused of lying and called wicked for making up such terrible stories. Telling is a very courageous step and survivors need affirming and validating constantly.

6. Survivors need to know the abuse wasn’t their fault. When a child is sexually abused, the responsibility for that abuse is totally upon the adult. The child is the innocent party, yet many survivors carry round with them a crippling burden of guilt and shame. They feel that there must be something wrong with them for the abuse to have happened, or that they must have provoked it or deserved it. Survivors need to grasp that it wasn’t their fault and they don’t need to feel guilty or ashamed. This may need to be repeated many times before it is fully integrated into their belief system.

7. Survivors need to break the silence. Many survivors are told by their abusers that if they tell, they or their parents (or their pet dog!) will be harmed or even killed. This generates such fear and, coupled with the trauma of the abuse itself, ensures the secret is kept, often for many years. Survivors need to be helped to break the silence in a safe and secure environment so that the fear can be dispelled and healing begin.

8. Survivors may need professional help. There may be a need for the survivor to talk to someone who is experienced and qualified in dealing with survivors of sexual abuse. This can be a counsellor, psychotherapist or psychiatrist, for example, someone who is outside the person’s normal world, who is able to help them move through the healing process. No matter how good a person’s support network is, there may still be a need to seek professional support to make sense of the complex nature of healing and it’s likely effects on the survivor and those around them.

9. Survivors need a support network. Many survivors feel lonely and isolated, even in the midst of a close family, so it’s very important that they be encouraged to build and maintain a network of supportive, positive people who they can turn to, especially in times of crisis. This support network can include their partner, close relatives or friends, and within those there should be one or two who are able to cope with the demands of supporting someone through their crisis of healing. Supporting a survivor requires a great deal of love, time and patience, which will be stretched to the limit at times. It’s important for supporters to think through whether they can make this kind of commitment and are able to offer non-judgemental, unconditional love.

10. Survivors need time to heal. If we consider that some survivors keep the secret of their abuse for 10, 20 or even 40 years, we should not expect them to heal in a matter of weeks. They themselves will need to be helped to understand that dealing with such traumatic material is a long-term process and we should beware of setting time scales. This can cause problems when the allotted time has elapsed and healing is not complete. A useful analogy is the medical one of a deep, open wound which needs to be constantly cleansed and dressed while the body goes through the natural healing process. Just as we would not expect such a wound to heal in a matter of days, or even weeks, neither should we expect deep emotional wounds to heal in a similar time scale.

11. Survivors need to grieve. There are many losses associated with the affects of sexual abuse. These can include loss of childhood, loss of innocence, loss of nurturing, protecting parents, loss of trust, loss of privacy, personal space and boundaries, and there may be many others. Each of these losses must be identified and grieved over in the same way as we would grieve over the loss of a loved one. Each stage of the grieving process must be gone through and healing will not take place until the process is complete. Again, the survivor will need time to work through the grief.

12. Survivors need to understand healing is hard work. Working through the trauma of sexual abuse is hard work, emotionally, mentally and physically. It’s important to understand this at the outset as there may be times when the survivor will feel like giving up. It’s at times like these when the person’s supporters need to be there to encourage and affirm them in their resolve. The rewards of healing are tremendous. Many survivors can testify to the fact that their lives are richly rewarding and fulfilling as a result of healing and being transformed from a victim to a survivor to a victor.

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