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Someone Disclosing to you

What to Expect When Someone Discloses to You

Survivors of sexual violence will express a range of emotional and physical symptoms. Sexual violence is never the fault of the survivor and each may react differently. Each survivor of sexual violence has their own personal experience, emotions, and ways of coping. There is no right or wrong way for a survivor to feel or react following an experience of sexual violence.

We may think that survivors disclose because they are hoping to formally report; however, they disclose for a variety of reasons, such as:

  • They want to prevent it from happening again
  • They are looking for justice
  • They want to raise awareness
  • They are hurting and want to feel better, and want to reduce the burden by sharing

    It is important that you don’t assume to know someone’s intention for disclosing.

Survivors disclose in their own time. For some, this can be right after the incident. For others, it may be weeks or months later. A survivor may not know right away what they want to do next. It is important that they have control over their next steps. Survivors are the experts in determining what steps and supports are best for them. Ensure they know the resources they can contact if and when they choose to access them.

For training on Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Violence, please see the introductory one-hour online module from Western’s Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children.

What You Can do to Help

1. Ask and Ensure Safety

Helpful Response Harmful Response
Do notice if something appears off or seems amiss by asking if everything is ok, sharing what you’ve noticed, expressing your concern. Ask if they feel safe. Don’t treat them differently because of what they share with you. Don’t avoid asking because you’re afraid to know or don’t want to know.
Do believe what they tell you because it’s their experience and their perception. For the moment, focus on what they are saying and experiencing. Don’t judge by asking them direct questions, trying to pull out details, or talking incessantly.
Do validate and normalize their reactions, emotions, and feelings (confusion, anger, resentment, guilt, low self-esteem, etc.), whatever they may be. Don’t re-direct by keeping them from expressing negative emotions they feel under the pretext that they mustn’t live in the past or that it isn’t good for them.

2. Listen & Show Support

Helpful Response Harmful Response
Do listen to what they say without judgement and let them express themselves in their own way and at their own pace.
Don’t doubt by appearing to be skeptical or questioning what they tell you.
Do receive what they say without downplaying or amplifying the facts, their emotions, or consequences. Don’t trivialize, minimize, over-dramatize, or silence them. Don’t make excuses for the aggressor’s behavior.
Do remind them it is not their fault, that their responsibility is to take care of themselves, and that the aggressor is completely responsible for their actions. Don’t blame the person for what they didn’t do, imply that they must have provoked the incident, or that they are partially responsible for what happened to them.

3. Connect to Resources

Helpful Response  Harmful Response
Do facilitate and refer them to supports. Show that you’re available to help or accompany them. If you’re incapable of helping, tell them and them help them find another person who is able to do so. Allow them to make their own decisions. Don’t ignore by not getting involved in their story under the pretext that it’s not your business or that it’s not your problem. Don’t ignore their request for help.

 Information from University of Ottawa: Helpful and Harmful Responses.