A guide for families of survivors of interpersonal violence
Image: Artwork given to SHARPP by a survivor of IPV
Talking with your student after an incident
As parents/guardians and family members, it can be very difficult and overwhelming to hear that your loved one has been harmed. When it happens, it can be hard to know how to act or what to say. Every person responds differently, and frequent survivor responses include feelings of fear, distress, humiliation, anger, confusion, numbness, and guilt. The single most important thing you can do is help your college student feel safe and supported. The Sexual Harassment & Rape Prevention Program at the University of New Hampshire can provide free confidential support, information, resources, and advocacy to both you and your student to help in the healing process.
When responding to your student after they've experienced violence, here are some suggestions on how you can provide support
- First and most importantly, believe your student when they confide in you and allow them to disclose at their own pace. Do not place blame on your student for the harm they've experienced, and don’t pressure them to talk. By letting them set the pace, you're showing that you're focused on their needs.
- Provide your student with confidential resources where they can discuss options so that they can make an informed decision about what to do next. SHARPP is one of these resources, and is available 24/7. This may or may not include seeking medical attention and/or contacting the police. Whatever the choice, it’s important that your student make their own choices as a way to regain control over what’s happening to them.
- Help your student get the professional care and support they may need. Counseling can be very helpful in assisting your student and yourself through the healing process of coping during/after violence. Psychological and Counseling Services is your on-campus resource and SHARPP can provide names of off-campus counseling centers too.
- Listen and try to understand without judgment. Reassure your student that they have your love and support. Listen to their reasons if your student didn’t tell you immediately. They may have been scared of your reaction, felt shame or embarrassment, or tried to protect you. It is very common for survivors to wait before sharing with people they love.
- It is common for survivors to blame themselves for what happened. Reassure your student that it was not their fault, and that the only person responsible is the harm doer
- Give control to your student. This means allowing them to speak for themselves, unless they specifically ask you to speak on their behalf. It is crucial for survivors to be able to make their own decisions in order to regain power over their own lives.
- Criticize them for what they were wearing, being where they were, or their actions/behaviors, etc. The only person responsible for violence is the harm doer. Everyone has the basic human right to be free from threats, harassment, or attack. Whatever your student did to survive the situation was the right thing to do.
- Downplay what happened by saying it wasn’t that bad or that they should forget about it. Let your student tell you exactly how they feel.
- Sympathize with the abuser. Your student needs your absolute support.
- Blame your student, your spouse/partner, or yourself. Avoid asking “why” questions as much as possible because these often imply blame.
How to help your student
During this critical time, your focus needs to be on supporting your student. Your primary role is to provide support, not to "solve" the case. Asking for too many details can make the survivor think that you don’t believe them or may cause your student to simply shut down. Realize that “legal justice” and “emotional healing” are two different things; for many survivors, legal justice is not the primary goal.
It’s okay to have doubts about what to say or how to react when your student tells you they have been harmed. It’s also important to recognize and honor your own needs, and accept that there will very likely be changes in your relationship with your student as they heal.
- Believe what your student tells you (even if they sometimes doubt themselves, their memories are vague, or if what they tell you sounds extreme). Don’t become frustrated if the story changes. The details will likely come out in bits and pieces.
- Listen and help your student process through all of the confusing and painful feelings. Validate their anger, pain, and fear as natural responses.
- Don’t panic. If you don’t control your emotions, your student may find it harder to talk with you and may even feel guilty for upsetting you. Share your feelings, but make sure your feelings don’t overwhelm your student’s feelings. As a loved one of a survivor, you may have reactions of anger, sadness, and shame. Find a supportive person or counselor with whom you can share your feelings with so that your conversations with your student can focus on their needs.
- Try to separate the anger you may feel at your student for having broken any rules from the anger that you feel towards the harm doer. The offender is the only one responsible for the assault/abuse. No matter how badly you need to vocalize your anger, don’t vent it on your student or other family members.
- Recognize your student’s need for privacy. Their boundaries have been violated and reclaiming personal space is important. Respect the time and space it takes to heal after violence.
- Seek immediate professional help if your student displays any suicidal behaviors or if you are worried about their emotional or physical well-being.
- Take care of yourself. Educate yourself about interpersonal violence and the healing process. Recognize when you’ve reached your own limitations, and encourage your student to talk to a professional. It’s normal to feel angry, depressed, helpless and/or overwhelmed when someone we love is harmed. Your local crisis center can be a free and confidential place to talk about your feelings and get referrals to local mental health counselors that have experience working on these issues.