Reframing How We Respond to Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivors (Part 2)

Man actively listening to a woman who looks sadIn my previous blog, I proposed our need to reframe our thinking about childhood sexual abuse (CSA) by understanding that the outcome for most CSA survivors is post-traumatic stress disorder and complex traumatic stress disorder.

Once we have reframed our understanding of CSA, we can work towards reframing our response to survivors of abuse. Reframing our response includes these three steps:

  1. Learn to listen.
  2. Listen to learn.
  3. Speak to affirm and validate, not preach.

1. Learn to Listen

Multiple reasons contribute to the silencing of survivors of sexual abuse.

These reasons include:

  • Threats from their perpetrator. Examples are, “This is our little secret” or “If you tell anyone, it will break up your family.”
  • A wounding response to an attempted disclosure. Examples are, “[Name] would never do that,” or “You must have done something to cause it.” The first example is one of disbelief. The second is a condemning statement.
  • Shame: the survivor believes, “There’s something wrong with me,” or “I’m disgusting.”
  • Self-blame: the survivor believes, “If others really knew me, they would see how bad I really am.”
  • Fear: the survivor believes, “Nobody will understand, I’m different from everyone else, I better keep this to myself.”
  • It is not safe. One survivor said of her perpetrator, “He lived in my house.”

Safety is a prerequisite for the survivor to speak about their abuse. The survivor gauges the level of safety by the listener’s ability and compacity to listen with compassion and acceptance.

The survivor gauges the level of safety by the listener’s ability and capacity to listen with compassion and acceptance.

The listener’s ability and capacity to listen increases as they learn these lessons.

  • The listener must learn to be patient.
    The only way survivors begin to accept the vile reality of abuse and its horror is by giving them the freedom to hear their own voice telling and retelling their story. Each repetitive and audible recitation removes another layer of the onion. As listeners, we must learn to maintain eye contact and convey patience. We do this by never looking at the time or letting our eyes be distracted from the person disclosing their story.
  • The listener must learn to keep quiet.
    A survivor’s disclosure is the unburdening of an unbearable weight. A good listener recognizes the solemnity of the moment and refrains from thinking that they must say something. The only words that might be helpful are, “It had to be terrible. I will sit here with you. I’m not going anywhere.” Among the worst things said are, “Don’t cry,” “Don’t be angry,” or “It’s ok.”
  • The listener must show the survivor they are accepted.
    The survivor will likely feel like they are different from or less than “normal” people. A good listener will help the other person to feel accepted.
  • The listener must learn to bear the survivor’s pain.
    I don’t like pain. You probably don’t either. Unfortunately, I sometimes used prayer to escape feeling pain by saying, “Let me pray for you right now.” Once, a quiet voice within me said, “Don’t pray right now.” Although I did not pray, the inner prompting mystified me. How can prayer not be the right thing to do?

The next day, I realized my own discomfort as I listened to the person pour out their pain the night before. I wanted to use prayer to stop the hurting person from speaking because I didn’t like feeling the pain. I intended to pray and then transition to another topic.

Jesus came and sat with us in our pain. He instructs us to do the same. “Bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2).

A survivor’s sense of safety occurs as trust develops through non-judgmental, compassionate listening. It is a process.

2. Listen to Learn

We learn what it is like to be in a survivor’s shoes by listening to their story. You will hear their story of trauma. You will learn about their struggles with long-term effects, including social anxiety, self-injurious behavior, depression, eating disorder, sleep disturbance, rage, self-hatred, intrusive thoughts, somatic disturbance, shame, panic attacks, substance abuse, hypervigilance, and more.

Most often, when we hear a survivor’s story of victimization by a sexual perpetrator, it is being told by the survivor as an adult. Therefore, we tend to see them as adults even though they may have had the abuse inflicted on them as a child or young adult. They were in a situation of powerlessness and helplessness. When we listen to learn, we see the survivor as the helpless, innocent child or the vulnerable young adult who was powerless and blameless. We will hear the cry of the child as we listen to the verbal account of the adult.

When we listen to learn, we see the survivor as the helpless, innocent child or the vulnerable young adult who was powerless and blameless.

Second, listening to learn enables us to understand the rationale of their anger. Survivors were violated in the depths of their souls as well as in the privacy of their bodies. Furthermore, God was angry at the abuse. The survivor’s expression of anger toward the perpetrator means they are aiming it in the right direction. Previously, they may have aimed their anger at their family, boss, or anyone within range. Eventual forgiveness of the perpetrator can never occur unless there is first an angry awareness of the violation.

A husband whom I mentor articulated a third valuable learning point. He said,

Listening to learn also enables us to see that the survivor is a person, just like us. They, too, are unique, beautiful creations. What happened to them was not their fault and didn’t make them different from us or anyone else. This can be especially helpful if the survivor is displaying behaviors that are hard to understand for the listener (i.e., anger, rage, confusion, destructive habits, etc.). It’s important to realize that these behaviors are symptoms of trauma from the horrible abuse they endured.

3. Speak to affirm and validate, not preach

Validation can begin with the words, “It makes sense.” Regarding anger, we can say to the survivor, “It makes sense that you are angry. God is angry that you experienced the abuse.”

It is not for us to talk a survivor out of their feelings. Instead, we must allow them the freedom to talk out their feelings.

The words of Constance Nightingale can instruct us.

As sexual abuse is the most unloving thing that can happen to a child, then love is the key to our healing. . . . the love that is acceptance of the people we are. It’s someone listening and believing, someone caring, and understanding the complex mix of our emotions; someone accepting all the rage, grief and terror we have concealed for so long; someone helping us to replace the old tape that told us we weren’t worth anything, were guilty and dirty, with a true new tape that speaks of our value, our innocence and essential goodness, and of our ability to take control over our own lives, and to trust ourselves and others.1

It is not for us to talk a survivor out of their feelings. Instead, we must allow them the freedom to talk out their feelings.


The prevalence of sexual abuse indicates that we mingle with survivors every day. Survivors are on the screen in our Zoom meetings, sitting in the next row at church, on our volleyball and basketball teams, at our workplace, and our family gatherings. To reframe our understanding of what survivors experience and how we respond to them can be an expression of love that contributes to their healing. Survivors need a safe, accepting, loving place to be free to share; so they can step out of the dark places they’ve been locked in and step into freedom.


1Sarah Boyle and Madge Bray, Sexual Abuse – The Child’s Voice: Poppies on the Rubbish Heap. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1997, p. 195)

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