When 1in6’s founding Board member, Dr. David Lisak, and I were talking with a group of students and staff at Brown University recently, someone asked for ideas about how to best support a friend or family member who is coming to terms with unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood.
We had just watched a powerful film, ”Boys and Men Healing,” a portrayal of the lives of three courageous men (David being one of them) who were sexually abused as children and then, as adults, found healing for themselves and have since helped many others. The film also shows scenes from a support group of men who experienced abuse, beautifully highlighting the value of men finding a safe place to share their stories.
Each man in the film described, in his own way, how after years of silence, it was speaking up about the traumatic experience that really started his own process of healing. They all emphasized how crucial the supportive response they received from others was when they did speak up.
But each also noted the challenge of overcoming socialized messages about manhood that made it difficult to reach out—messages that allow men to express anger, but discourage the expression of the deeper, underlying emotions like sadness, vulnerability and fear, and messages that make asking for help seem like a weakness, instead of a strength. In my experience, men in particular need space and time to explore the full range of those options at their own pace.
So my short answer to the question about how to best offer support always is, “Ask what they need to feel safe. Believe. Be present. Don’t offer advice about what they should do or feel.”
Hearing that someone you care about was sexually abused or mistreated as a child can stir up intense feelings, especially if you have your own history of trauma. Those emotions may include rage, sadness, a sense of betrayal, vulnerability or a wish to punish the person who hurt your loved one.
It’s very important to remember that those feelings are yours, not theirs.
It can be useful to get some outside help to continue to keep that difference straight. To learn more see the Family, Friends and Partners section of 1in6.org.
A friend once shared a story with me about how he’d learned a profound lesson:
More than forty years after he was sexually abused by a much-hated coach, he said he still felt nothing but disdain toward the man who abused him. He recalled being baffled by a friend’s more compassionate approach to holding the man who had sexually abused her accountable for the harm he caused. When my friend confronted her with his confusion, she told him, “of course you don’t understand my way of handling this. You never loved the person who abused you.”
Every individual has a different way of recovering from a confusing childhood experience. How they describe what happened may even seem inadequate—or plain wrong—to you. But remember, it’s a process. What someone feels today may be very different from their feelings tomorrow or next week. What they need to feel safe in the present may not be what you think they need, or what you would need. Over time, they may eventually feel—or at least try out—all those emotions that were stirred around by you….or they may not. A big part of healing is reclaiming control over those emotions, being confident in resisting outside pressure to think, feel or behave in a way that is externally imposed.
Providing safety for someone you care about so they can explore all their options is what being supportive is about. But it’s no easy task.
My father was one of the most gentle, respectful men I have ever known.
In 1987, I finally told my parents that when I was a teenager, 20 years earlier, our parish priest had sexually abused me. My father immediately asked if I wanted him to go beat up the priest. Suddenly, whatever anger I was feeling toward the priest was replaced by the impulse to defend him from someone who genuinely loved me and was trying desperately to be supportive. I can’t help but wonder if some latent sense of male duty to respond to injury with violence drove my father to make an offer so outside his character.
But the silent, supportive hug I got from him later in the day was much more helpful. That actually made me feel safe.
Peter Pollard is the Training and Outreach Director for 1in6, Inc. Peter previously worked for 15 years as a state, child-protection social worker and was the Public Education director at Stop It Now! Since 2003, he has served as the Western Massachusetts coordinator for SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and also does work for a Certified Batterers Intervention Program.