How to Support Someone Who's Been Harmed

We know that interpersonal violence is common and affects many people in our community. If someone told you about a sexual assault, stalking/harassment, or relationship violence, it’s a sign that they trust or need you. We hope this page provides information and guidance for ways to respond when someone in your life confides in you. 


Express Care.

Follow Their Lead.

It’s essential that you keep their personal information private and confidential to the greatest extent possible. It’s a privilege to support and hold space for them to share things that could be painful, stressful, or confusing. It’s okay if you don’t have the perfect response or if you experience emotions in response to what you’ve heard. Being genuine and empathetic is the key, instead of overly focusing on saying “the right thing”.

  • Give your full attention when someone shares an unwanted sexual experience or violent circumstance with you and believe them! You don’t need all the details or for their narrative to “make logical sense” to youto offer genuine support and care.

  • Listen to really understand what they’re saying and validate how they're feeling. Questions should come from a place of care, instead of trying to get all the facts, investigate, or because you're curious. Be intentional with direct, supportive statements. ("I'm here for you." "I'm glad you told me.")

  • Avoid probing or judgmental questions. If someone is already feeling some guilt, shame, or self-blame, your response might reinforce or amplify those thoughts. Pause and ask yourself: Do I really needto know this? What purpose does this question serve? If you still feel the question is important but could be interpreted different than you intend, let them know why you are asking and be gentle, caring in tone.

  • Express concern and share genuine emotion about this person and the harm, but avoid making the conversation about yourself and how you're feeling. Re-focus on them.

  • Don’t take charge or tell someone what they should do next or how they should feel. Everyone reacts differently and their feelings and choices may be unexpected and/or change through time. Keep in mind that someone in this circumstance already has a series of decisions to make that they didn’t ask for or plan for. Decisions about seeking medical care, legal action, reporting, or counseling can be very personal, overwhelming, and complicated to make.

  • Mirror the language someone uses about their experience. Some words fit better than others, so be sure to follow their lead on language. For example, some people really relate to terms like survivor or victim, and others don’t. Some people are specific in defining what happened to them and others are either unsure or have fewer preferences about terminology (ex. defining something as traumatic; interchangeably using rape, abuse, and sexual assault; or not using any terms at all).

  • Educate yourself on some of the common reactions to trauma. While there may be some typical patterns, responses often vary person to person and over time. Sometimes an understanding of what the science says -- and what other people in similar situations have gone through or felt -- can be validating. Advances in neurobiology, research, technology, and social movements have created additional avenues for learning about, understanding, and sharing experiences.

Following these guidelines can help to communicate that you are a safe person to confide in. Some people might be worried that you will see them differently, that you will have an intense reaction, or that who they are (or their story) is “too much”. The ways you respond and demonstrate support can help reassure someone that you believe them, that what happened wasn’t their fault, and that you feel that the ways they are responding are understandable. Look for opportunities to support their decisions and to increase their control over what happens next.

Remember that you deserve support and spaces to process your thoughts and emotions too -- separate from the person who experienced the harm or violence. This is especially important if you are struggling with what they shared for a variety of reasons. Those could include your own history or connection to interpersonal violence or this person, or perhaps you have a relationship to or otherwise know the person who caused harm. Things can often affect us in ways we don't anticipate or don’t fully understand.

It's not always easy to support someone we love or care about who is in pain or experiencing hurt. This can be stressful and draining at times, and it could be helpful to make intentional spaces for self-compassion. Find ways to cope with your feelings that serve your overall wellness. Taking care of and understanding yourself, setting boundaries when you need to, and seeking the personal or professional support you need are all ways to show care to the person who’s relying on you, too.


Additional Reading:





  • Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky