Hearing about a person’s experience of child sexual abuse can be confronting and people listening to disclosures may be confronted by their own reactions. These may include shock, surprise, fear of doing or saying the wrong thing or responding inadequately. Other reactions might be anger, disbelief, doubt or not feeling anything at all. For the person disclosing, the shame, fear and lasting impacts of trauma arising from child sexual abuse mean that sharing their story risks re-traumatisation as a result of the reactions they receive. They may also be in a heightened state after summoning the courage to disclose, fearful of placing close relationships in jeopardy and anticipating avoidance or rejection.
If you consider yourself a self-aware and empathic person, you may assume you would be compassionate in the situation of a person disclosing child sexual abuse to you. Lived experience survivor, Angela Obradovic, says:
People might say to themselves, “I know how to respond to someone compassionately”— assuming that this scenario is no different to other situations of suffering or distress people confide in them about — that is, until they have to. [To be prepared] consider what you might not have thought about yet in relation to child sexual abuse. [Everyone] has a really valuable role to play that doesn’t require special knowledge or a professional role.
Compassion is a basic human quality
Building confidence in being compassionate in the face of child sexual abuse
People might find hearing someone’s story of child sexual abuse challenging because there are different situational circumstances that may inhibit or enable confidence in responding. Their capacity to empathise and respond compassionately may also be challenged by the context and relationship they have with the person disclosing.
Lack of personal experience isn’t a barrier to understanding distress or its impact. We are all capable of imagining ourselves ‘standing in someone else’s shoes’, or are able to identify a similar experience that is easily generalised to cross the social distance.
For example, calling on your experience as a child when supporting children or parents even if you are not a parent or a childcare worker yourself. Equally, the closer something is to a person’s experience the more impactful it may be. That very proximity, for a variety of reasons, can trigger avoidance or, alternatively, a deeper connection and caring motivation.
As the National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse (the National Centre) found through their Learning and Professional Development Survey, having a professional role overlapping with a lived and living experience of child sexual abuse is not uncommon. This survey draws attention to the fact that those with this dual identification (31%) may experience complex constraints about sharing their own story. While responding to disclosures is a core part of their work and richly informs it, codes of ethics and behaviour limit their options to share and receive support.
Given the secrecy that accompanies child sexual abuse — which remains out of sight and out of mind — a person with lived experience may find another survivor wanting to share a story of child sexual abuse with them. If your own history has been dormant or unexplored, your response may be complicated and require self-compassion.
Exploring a range of scenarios that you may encounter, as well as reflecting on your own familiarity with abuse or lack of it, can identify barriers you may not have considered.
It can also help you to update yourself about situations where the needs of a child or adult victim require immediate protective action. Regardless of your relationship to the person, this approach allows the opportunity to build confidence in your response in advance and may help to reduce the sense that this basic response of compassion is difficult, specialist or fraught.
Compassionate responses to people who share their experience of child sexual abuse
In essence, a compassionate response, at its core, is where the listener is ‘actively’ listening, paying close attention to what is being revealed and allowing the person to say whatever they need to at their own pace; sitting with them in the moment and ignoring any distractions. It’s one where the listener is being a calm, grounded anchor, bearing witness to the story, accepting it and the way it’s being told — whether that is a slow release of built-up tension, expressed with strained tight control or buffeted by a flood of emotions.
People stress that being believed is critical. Survivors scan for signs of being believed and are often reassured by facial expressions and body language that convey acceptance and kindness well before the listener speaks.
For many reasons, words can fail people when telling their story. To hear a listener tell them to take their time, or to hear what they’ve said reflected back, confirms and deepens the sense of really being heard.
Sometimes a disclosure may emerge after you have shared something else of great sensitivity yourself. That expression of vulnerability can create moments of courage. Survivors may have had a number of false starts and sensing permission and mutuality can strengthen their resolve.
It may feel instinctive to join with a victim-survivor about similar experiences you or others have had as a way of demonstrating understanding. Resist.
A first conversation needs to focus on the survivor’s story. That solidarity may be more validating to them if shared on another occasion.
As time passes, emotional exhaustion is likely. Make it clear that you care about them and that they can say as much or as little as they feel comfortable to; knowing that you will be there to listen again if and when they want to talk. Ask the person if there’s anything you can do to help right now.
It may seem obvious to check with adult survivors if they have sought professional help and to encourage that. A way to avoid giving the impression that their story may have overloaded and burdened you is by naming yourself as part of their broader support network.
Responding compassionately is both possible and essential to a victim-survivor’s healing journey. By examining your own understanding of what compassion is, reflecting on the reality that you may feel confronted by somebody sharing an experience of child sexual abuse and further reflecting on how you will respond if this situation occurs is great preparation.
As Angela points out:
“Often people rob themselves of the power to act in a simple but powerful way. They believe that child sexual abuse is such a complex, sensitive area that they will fall short somehow when, in reality, and whether you are a loved one, friend, colleague or professional, mindfully listening, acknowledging and supporting the person has an incredibly healing effect in the lives of victim-survivors.”