Supporting Survivors: The 3 Words You Should Never Say After Abuse is Disclosed

Horowitz Law [Fort Lauderdale FL]

April 30, 2024

When someone opens up and shares that they have been sexually abused, how you respond is extremely important both for the healing of that child and for the process of investigating and uncovering the truth. There are certainly some excellent online resources that give guidance in this sensitive area. We at Horowitz Law, however, want to approach this from the opposite angle: What should you NEVER say to an abuse victim? For starters, here are the three words we believe you should avoid saying, probably ever but at least early on, to a survivor: “Why didn’t you. . .”

This question often ends with words or phrases like:

  • run
  • scream
  • kick him
  • fight back
  • ask for help
  • tell me sooner
  • call the police

To be perfectly blunt, those are wrong words, phrases, and questions. Despite your good intentions, nearly anything you might say after opening with “Why didn’t you,“ would almost certainly be detrimental, and here’s why:

  1. When someone tells you something they may feel is shameful, embarrassing, difficult, or deeply personal, they usually want validation and support. They usually don’t want a bunch of questions, certainly not ones beginning with “Why didn’t you. . .”
  2. When a person discloses abuse to you, they are not looking to give you a chance to learn more or understand abuse better. They are looking to be believed and supported.
  3. When a friend, loved one, or even a stranger reveals this kind of secret, it’s NOT your chance to get better educated. It’s your chance to show that you care about and will stand with your friend or loved one.
  4. Fundamentally, it’s not about you at all. It’s about them. If you keep this in mind, you’ll be a good friend or support person. Try to shelve your personal feelings or curiosity. Instead, focus on and listen to them.

Validation is Key When Dealing with Sexual Abuse

Put another way, an abuse disclosure is NOT a chance for you to GAIN understanding but rather a chance for you to OFFER understanding. There are plenty of other ways and opportunities for you to learn about child sexual abuse that won’t sound abrasive or insensitive to an abuse survivor.

But the specifics of the question are just part of the problem. The actual premise of the question is problematic. Indeed, it’s worse. It’s almost always hurtful. The phrase “Why didn’t you“ immediately suggests that they did something wrong or didn’t do what they should have done.

That’s NOT helpful to an abuse survivor. Most likely, they have already spent years ruminating on their abuse. They have likely kicked themselves repeatedly for not responding to it differently. Many victims of crime do this, but especially victims who were sexually assaulted in their youth.

They don’t need you to say or suggest that they might have somehow behaved differently. Remember: they were a scared, confused kid who was probably manipulated by a trusted adult who was much older and wiser and who probably worked long and hard to make sure his victim would cooperate and not speak up.

Others may have already told them, “You did nothing wrong. It wasn’t your fault.“ But you should not miss this opportunity to drive home this crucial message. Most survivors can never hear this often enough. 

Back to the positive approach for a minute.  If someone discloses abuse to you, it’s extremely important to listen calmly and openly, don’t fill in any gaps, and tell them that you promise to help them. If you don’t look up, “What should I say when someone tells me they were sexually abused,” here are a few three-word phrases that are good, caring starters:

  • “I’m so sorry.“
  • “You’re not alone.“
  • “How can I help?“
  • “You are blameless.”

And perhaps most important, “I believe you.” Clear, validating messages include compassionate statements that take the blame off the victim: “You didn’t cause this; it isn’t your fault.” “You do not deserve to be hit or hurt, no matter what happened.” “I am concerned about your safety and well-being.”