ON THIS PAGE
- Where Do I Start?
- Your Needs Matter Too
- Consider Focusing on Yourself First
- Why Pushing Him or Her Won’t Work
- A More Effective Approach to Helping
- Additional Resources Related to Childhood Sexual Abuse
This page is for spouses and partners, boyfriends and girlfriends, and other family and friends of adults who are (or may be) struggling with the effects of harmful unwanted or abusive childhood experiences.
Maybe you’re just beginning to learn about how harmful childhood experiences could be having negative effects on a man or woman you care about. Or how you can best support someone you love. Maybe you’ve been dealing with these issues for years, and are wondering how this website could be useful to you. Maybe something in between.
Whatever your situation, I have resources for you. But first, especially if you’re just beginning to deal with this, my most important advice: take care of yourself, and don’t push him.
Where Do I Start?
Based on many years of experience helping people in situations like yours, including people who are feeling desperate and at their wits end, I recommend that you start by focusing on taking care of yourself.
Why focus on yourself, not just on the person you’re concerned about and his or her needs? The better you take care of yourself, the more effectively you can support her or him. You’ll be able to take a break when you’re getting overwhelmed, manage feelings like anger and sadness, and reach out for help when you need it. You’ll also be modeling self-care for the person you love, and more likely to stick with her or him (in a way that’s healthy for you) even in the hardest times.
Take care of yourself. Don’t push him or her.
Pacing yourself is important too. You can learn a lot pretty quickly, from my website and others, and some excellent books I recommend. But you don’t have to figure out everything right away. If that’s a pressure you feel, I totally understand. I also know that, if you don’t pace yourself, going full steam ahead can create new problems.
Why not push your friend or family member? When we feel great pressure to push others to get help, we’re usually responding more to our own (hard to tolerate) feelings than to the other person’s needs. And the other person will sense this, resist and push back. Then it becomes a struggle that helps neither person, especially the one who could most benefit from getting some help.
Before trying to share what you learn with the person you’re concerned about, take some time to ‘digest’ it for yourself. Take some time to sort through your own feelings, beliefs, and needs. And take some time to think about the most effective way to talk with him or her.
Important: Taking care of yourself and not pushing her or him do not mean neglecting either of your needs, or that meeting your needs must depend on his or her pace.
As you focus on taking care of yourself, you may need to let your loved one know (without threats or ultimatums) that, while you respect his or her needs and pace, your needs are equally important and you have your own pace, including for coming to decisions about your relationship with him or her.
Your Needs Matter Too
I’m providing resources for sorting out what makes sense to you, as well as the man or woman you care about, and for sorting out the options for dealing with your unique experiences and moving closer to the life (and relationship) you want.
For some of you, your loved one’s problems – and their effects on you – may have reached a point where something major has to change.
You too have needs, things to sort out.
Because every person needs to sort these things out on his or her own terms, in their own time, pushing them to go at the pace you want is not going to be helpful.
Consider Focusing on Yourself First
Before I focus on helping the person you care about, I want to direct your attention to helping yourself. The closer your relationship to the man or woman in question, and the greater the impact of his or her problems on you, the more important it is to start with yourexperiences and needs.
The more he affects you, the more helpful to focus on yourself.
Especially if you are trying to help someone find professional help, or to ‘convince’ them that they need therapy, I have a recommendation. Before suggesting anything to the other person, consider meeting yourself with a therapist who is very experienced at helping people like the person you’re concerned about. Even just one or two sessions can be extremely helpful.
Why? Talking in person to a qualified professional can help you sort through your feelings, fears, frustrations, and strong impulses to take action (in what, for some of you, may feel like an increasingly unbearable situation).
It’s your ability to manage such feelings and impulses that determines how effective you are at discussing these issues with someone you love. Will you talk with them in a way that decreases the likelihood that they’ll get defensive? In a way that increases the likelihood that they’ll come to his own – freely chosen and internally motivated – decision to seek help?
Basically, it often makes sense for you to get some consultation, support and help in dealing with the difficult situation you are in. Doing so can maximize your chances of helping the person you care about make his or her own decisions and commitments about seeking help and making changes for the better.
Ultimately, it’s up to the person you care about. But how you discuss these issues with them can make a big difference. And especially if you’re in a close or intimate relationship, the more willing you are to face and seek help with your own problems – including ones that he can trigger and that can trigger theirs – the more likely they will be too.
Why Pushing Him or Her Won’t Work
Trying to be supportive and helpful to someone who is suffering from the effects of child abuse can be very difficult and challenging. Just knowing what they went through can bring up feelings of sadness, helplessness, frustration, and anger. If he clearly could benefit from some professional help but rejects that as an option, or she says she’ll get help but never follows through, it can become very frustrating.
How to help a someone who’s in conflict about getting help?
And it can be scary, if the well-being of your relationship or family seem to depend on what he or she chooses.
How to help someone you care about who has mixed feelings about seeking help? How to discuss things without taking sides in their inner conflict over whether or not to seek help – especially if you have a lot riding on their decisions and actions?
Much of it comes down to managing your own feelings, and managing your impulses to push him or her to make decisions or take action. But it also requires sorting through your own thoughts, feelings and needs, and figuring out how you can most effectively discuss these issues with the person you’re concerned about. There may be options for communicating that you don’t yet realize exist.
The vast majority of people who could benefit from professional help have very mixed feelings about seeking it.
On the one hand, they may hope that someone could really understand them, and help them to make changes they want to make in their lives.
On the other hand, they may fear that a therapist won’t understand, won’t be able to help, or will see them as ‘crazy.’ They may fear that a therapist won’t really care and will just use them to make money from their suffering. They may not feel worthy of being helped, or fear that it would be just too painful or humiliating to confront their suffering and problems in therapy. These mixed feelings and fears are quite normal for someone who was exploited and betrayed as a child.
In trying to help someone you care about who is struggling with such mixed feelings, there’s a very common trap that’s easy to fall into. That people so often fall into this trap is totally understandable, and they often do it without realizing what’s happening.
Pushing her to ‘admit’ she needs help won’t work (for long).
Here’s the trap: Trying to ‘show’ or ‘convince’ or otherwise push the other person into ‘admitting’ they need help, that they ‘must’ go into therapy, etc.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t work. In general, when people have mixed feelings about something and someone else does all the talking (and pushing) for one side, it puts the other person in the unbalanced position of ‘holding the other side’ and thinking and talking about the reasons he or she doesn’t want or need to change.
Also, when the person who fears change will have some serious drawbacks is someone who was used or abused as a child, being pushed to change can trigger fears of being manipulated and disempowered like he or she was back then. Of course, you may be genuinely trying your best, and pushing out of caring and love (not just growing fear and desperation). But the fact is – as you’ve probably already begun to realize, even if you still don’t quite know what else to do – this approach is not likely to work. The fact is, it tends to polarize things further, and to increase the other person’s resistance to change, including seeking help.
A More Effective Approach to Helping
The reasons that such communication styles do not work are very well explained by the therapists and researchers who developed ‘motivational interviewing,’ a way of communicating that can be extremely effective, and those who developed ‘CRAFT’ (see below).
Motivational interviewing was developed for people with substance use problems, who often have very mixed feelings about stopping or reducing substance use, and who are often seen by others as being ‘in denial.’
However, the principles of motivational interviewing apply to any situation where one person is trying to help another person resolve his or her mixed feelings about making a positive behavior change or committing to taking positive action.
Exploring their experience and what, for them, truly matters.
Indeed, many people struggling with problems related to harmful unwanted or abusive childhood experiences are often struggling with such mixed feelings. They are often seen as ‘in denial’ about (really, afraid to confront) what happened to them as children, as well as current problems that may be related to those experiences.
But again, there are more effective ways to understand and communicate with the person you care about and help her or him make healthy choices, commitments, and behavior changes.
As the developers of motivational interviewing, William Miller and Stephen Rollnick, have written:
“Constructive behavior change seems to arise when the person connects it with something of intrinsic value, something important, something cherished. Intrinsic motivation for change arises in an accepting, empowering atmosphere that makes it safe for the person to explore the possibly painful present in relation to what is wanted and valued. People often get stuck, not because they fail to appreciate the down side of their situation, but because they feel at least two ways about it. The way out of that forest has to do with exploring and following what the person is experiencing and what, from his or her perspective, truly matters.”
In the addictions field, the therapists and researchers who have been most helpful at putting this understanding and approach into practice with their loved ones are the developers of CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Training).
CRAFT is an approach that avoids the equally unhelpful opposites approaches of detachment (i.e., giving up, doing nothing and waiting for the other person to ‘see the light’) and confrontation (i.e., trying to force the other person to ‘admit’ their problems and need for help and to force them to get help).
Instead, the research-proven CRAFT approach teaches family members and friends effective behavioral and motivational strategies and skills for interacting with their loved one.
Again, while CRAFT was originally developed to help family members and their loved one’s struggling with addiction – certainly common in those abused and otherwise harmed as children – it applies to helping family members and friends be more effective at helping a loved one with any emotional or behavioral problems (that they have mixed feelings about getting help with).
Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change, by Kosanke, Wilkins & Foote (2014), is a fantastic book that explains all of this and provides lots of practical strategies, skills and practice exercises. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
See also the Center for Motivation and Change and their free online 20 Minute Guide, which will help you with such tools as:
- How to react when the person you care about has been using substances (or engaging in other harmful behaviors) and when he or she has not been using
- Getting more of what you want to see from the person you care about, and less of what you don’t
- How to talk to the person you care about so that you are more likely to be heard
- How to take care of yourself along the way
Additional Resources Related to Childhood Sexual Abuse
If you’re wondering whether someone you care experienced ‘sexual abuse,’ about, or whether childhood abuse experiences are related to his or her problems or struggles, then you may want to start with Sorting It Out for Yourself, Consequences of Abuse, or Sexual Abuse of Boys.
If you’re looking for more resources specifically for family and friends of men who were (or may have been) sexually abused as children, I recommend the Family & Friends section of 1in6.org (I wrote most of the site’s pages and was a founding board member of 1in6).
Finally, depending on your current needs you may want to check out some other 1in6 resources: Other Guys Like Him, to learn about other men just beginning to address the issue or to learn from men who are healing or have healed; Reasons for Hope, if you’re feeling down or hopeless about the problems he’s experiencing or his ability to sort things out, make changes, or ever be happy; and The Bristlecone Project, for inspiring portraits and stories of ‘men overcoming sexual abuse.’