How to Support a Survivor
Survivors of incest sometimes need extensive emotional support and other forms of help. The following sections cover best practices for supporting adult and young survivors along the continuum.
Best practices for supporting incest survivors of all ages include the following:
Respond supportively and knowledgeably when incest survivors disclose abuse: One of the most powerful ways to help a survivor of any age is to validate their experience and listen to what they need. “It was not your fault” “I believe you” “You are not alone” and “Let me know how I can help you” are helpful messages to communicate to incest survivors (who may feel they are to blame or that no one will believe their story). The shame, secrecy, blame, and threats that fuel the incest dynamic can isolate survivors, even into adulthood, making it difficult to talk about the abuse or trust others with their story. Reinforcing to survivors that their experience matters and that there are people who understand can be a lifeline to someone struggling to deal with the aftermath of incest. Refer to our page on Help for Those in Crisis if the person you are supporting needs immediate help.
Educate yourself on ways to support your partner, family member, friend, or child in their healing: Recommending professional support to the survivor in your life is a best practice, because you, as a supporter, can’t replace the services of an experienced counselor. However, there are many books written to help friends, family, and partners seeking to participate in the healing process of a survivor they love. “You Can Help: A Guide for Family & Friends of Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Assault,” “Healing Together: A Guide to Supporting Sexual Abuse Survivors,” “Ghosts in The Bedroom: A Guide for Partners of Incest Survivors,” and “Helping Your Child Recover From Sexual Abuse” are some good options, with other good reads found here. Visit our page on Books, Articles & Podcasts for more educational options.
Learn how to talk to survivors and give help in the long term: It’s not easy for everyone to talk to survivors about their victimization and to offer support over the long term. RAINN offers advice for talking with survivors about sexual assault and best practices for giving continued support over the long term, such as avoiding judgment, checking in periodically, and knowing your resources. Our page on Help for Those in Crisis provides resources and links that you can share with the incest survivor in your life.
Point them to resources in their local area and online that will meet their unique needs and communities: In addition to the resources described on this site, the Me Too organization has an excellent directory for sexual assault services and organizations that is searchable by location, community, need, and abuse experience.
Understand how best to help LGBTQ, people of color, and undocumented survivors: This brief and this article explain some of the issues confronting survivors who identify as LGBTQ. This guide is particularly helpful for providers working with LGBTQ survivors of color. The LGBTQ National Hotline refers to over 15,000 resources across the country that support LGBTQ individuals. That organization also coordinates weekly chatrooms for youth. FORGE offers training and technical assistance to professionals who provide services to transgender/gender non-conforming people and their networks. For more LGBTQ-specific sexual assault articles and services, click here.
Undocumented survivors may not feel safe reporting abuse and getting help. For a comprehensive list of options and resources that you can share with survivors, visit the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence’s Immigration page. The Alliance for Immigrant Survivors stays abreast of changing laws and offers opportunities for advocacy on this issue.
If you are supporting a survivor of color, know that there are organizations and websites geared specifically for those who have been traumatized by sexual assault and the effects of systemic racism. This article covering the topic of self care for people of color following trauma is a good share. Organizations such as Me Too, the National Organization of Sisters of Color Ending Sexual Assault (SCESA), and the Women of Color Network give offer options, guidance, and learning and training opportunities for survivors from black and brown communities.
Supporting young survivors and their families
After learning a young person you know has been molested, it is common for people not to know how to respond and support them in their healing. Young survivors are sometimes mute about the abuse and may share very little, if anything, with you. They may also express ambivalence about reporting or separating from the abusive family member. Child survivors of incest sometimes do what’s called “trauma bonding” with their offenders, which is when survivors associate caring and affection with abuse and feel unable to detach from the person who is hurting them. Understanding these dynamics is crucial to providing the right support and safety planning to youth.
If you are in a position of responsibility for children, you may be a mandated reporter, and that requires you by law to report any suspected or actual case of child sexual abuse. By law, mandated reporters must report what they know, and there are often strict penalties for failing to do so. This resource explains mandated reporting, and this provides detailed information on state laws and on reporting and responding to sexual abuse. If your occupation involves contact with children, this overview is helpful reading and provides links to other good resources for social workers, educators, health professionals, and school counselors.
The following organizations and resources are useful for both adult supporters and young survivors as they navigate emergency services, reporting and the criminal justice system, their own healing, and other issues.
BLOOM365: Children experiencing incest often struggle with relationships with their peers, families, and adults. BLOOM365 is a resource for students seeking to enhance their confidence, skills, and knowledge to grow safe and healthy relationships.
Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline: For those seeking direction on reporting incest, this organization’s Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline can help. Serving the U.S. and Canada, the hotline is staffed 24 hours a day with professional crisis counselors who—through interpreters—provide assistance in over 170 languages. The hotline offers crisis intervention, information, and referrals to thousands of emergency, social service, and support resources. All calls are confidential.
Comfort In The Storm: This Atlanta-based organization provides advocacy and peer support for families who have been impacted by the trauma of incest and child sexual abuse more generally. They also conduct comprehensive child sexual abuse prevention and awareness trainings for audiences of all sizes. As credentialed advocates and the parents of a child sexual abuse survivor, the founders of Comfort in The Storm have a unique perspective that helps families on their journey to healing and enables people to assist parents, caregivers, and others with developing an ever-evolving, age appropriate safety plan to help keep their children safe.
Daily Strength: Daily Strength features an online forum for parents of sexually abused children seeking support, guidance, and information from peers who share their experience.
Mothers of Sexually Abused Children (MOSAC): Parents of children experiencing incest are often uncertain about how best to help. MOSAC was created specifically for mothers of abuse survivors. Following the disclosure of a child's abuse, mothers may find themselves with few resources or supportive family or friends.They may also lack knowledge of incest and abuse in general, and want to know more. MOSAC’s website is a comprehensive source of information about sexual abuse and offers support and resources.
Sexual Assault Youth Support Network (SAYSN): This emotional, social, and legal resource for teens and young adults who are experiencing incest and other forms of sexual violence is particularly helpful for survivors who lack strong familial or personal support. SAYSN extends resources and information to those who are close to sexual assault survivors and want to support them. They also offer basic support to youth and help them access help; encourage survivors to be part of their network and community that offers support, guidance, and safety; coordinate preventive education; and work for social change to address issues of victim-blaming and prevention.
Stop It Now: Loved ones can get a wealth of information and advice for supporting incest survivors and navigating difficult situations with adults at risk of abusing children on Stop It Now’s comprehensive website. Their mission is to prevent sexual abuse, and to provide help and resources for victims and their networks. They give direct help to people with questions and concerns about child sexual abuse through their hotline, develop educational materials to help both laypeople and professionals recognize harmful behavior and know how to take action, train people and groups on prevention, and advocate for the sexual abuse of children to be addressed as a public health priority.
Talk About Abuse to Liberate Kids (TAALK): For parents devastated to learn their child is an incest survivor, TAALK’s weekly online support groups can offer valuable support and networking. This organization also offers training, articles, information, and links to other resources - all geared towards caregivers.
“I never told anyone about the incest for many years. My abuser told me I would "ruin our family, and his reputation (did that himself), and made threats. When I finally told my story in a big way many years later, I discovered that so many of the little girls I grew up around, had also been victims. We each thought we were the only ones. You are not alone.”
- Dr. Pamela M. Merolla