Updated: May 13
Sexual Assault is devastating for both the Survivor and the people who love her/him. Often, those around the survivor find themselves at a loss for words due to their own vicarious trauma from the event. The experiences for these secondary victims vary depending on the person and sometimes even on the role they have in the person’s life. Some of the common reactions from the secondary victim include:
1- GUILT: A parent or spouse may experience some guilt. They may have believed it was their role to protect the victim and feel that they failed. They may try to trace back what they could have done differently to have protected the victim. They may dwell on internal questions such as, “If I had just shown up on time” or “if I had stayed with her just a little longer that night”. These are guilt ridden thoughts, but very common for the protector to question. Accepting blame for the assault is a distortion of thought and requires reality checking. 2- Heal the victim: Some secondary victims empathize so much that they may say things like, “I wish I could take all your pain” or “I wish it had happened to me instead of you”. They want to magically heal the victim. 3- Distancing: Due to the fact that many people have never been a secondary victim, they may not know how to handle the problem. This may lead people to behave in unhelpful ways. One is that they may distance themselves from the victim. They don’t want to say something wrong or it makes them uncomfortable to not be able to help. The victim is then left with less social network and less supports. 4- Anger: The other unhelpful way someone may respond is through anger. They may want to blame the victim for putting herself in the situation. They may ask the victim what they were wearing or how much they drank. They may yell at the victim for “getting herself raped”. This leaves the victim feeling beaten down, unsupported and guilty. 5- Disbelief: The loved one may experience shock and denial. This is when the secondary victim is unable to wrap their head around the idea of the assault having occurred. It is just painful for them to accept. They may feel somewhat depersonalized or the situation may feel surreal. It may take a few days for them to process what has occurred. 6- Sadness: Hearing the news of a sexual assault is heartbreaking. The secondary victim may need time to cry out the sadness they have. It is helpful to allow this expression of emotion as long as the victim doesn’t end up supporting the secondary victim while they themselves need the support. 7- Justice: Seeking revenge is an extremely common reaction. People want justice and retribution for the crime. Sometimes people want to handle the problem on their own by finding the perpetrator themselves, but most often people seek justice through the court system. 8- Questioning: People find themselves wanting to know every detail of the events that led up to the assault. They will ask several questions to try to make sense of the trauma. They are seeking to better understand as a way of their own healing. At times, the questioning is premature or disrespectful. The victim may not want to discuss it, so request permission from the victim before you start to ask. They are already struggling with their boundaries being crossed, this is the time to empower them by getting permission and not pressing them for answers they are not ready to provide.
These are all normal reactions when we hear devastating news about someone we care for, but everyone involved benefits more from thinking about how to empower the victim after being stripped from all power. Listen, sooth and support your loved one and suggest to them a trauma therapist if they continue to struggle with guilt, shame, reliving the trauma or avoiding returning to normal functioning. They may need additional support to get through this difficult time.
**If you believe that you can benefit from additional support, please contact our office for assistance at (561) 670-6420. If you are suicidal please call 911 or go to nearest Emergency Room.
Jennifer Hoskins-Tomko, LCSW is a Psychotherapist who has been practicing for over 12 years. She has a strong background in trauma work, depression, anxiety, relapse prevention, etc. She is also the business owner of a concierge private practice in Jupiter, Florida. Jennifer and her team provide therapeutic services to a variety of clients of ages 14 and over. Services they provide are individual, couple, family and group therapy.
Monday – Friday9:00 – 5:00