Tips on How to Help Survivors of Trauma
There is no “right” way for a survivor to respond after a traumatic event. The person may or may not be responding in the way you would expect them to or the way you would. This is normal. Impact can vary and people can respond differently based on a variety of factors. As a support person, you play a critical role in a survivor’s recovery and well-being.
- Start by believing
- Remain calm
- Follow the survivor’s lead in discussing the incident to the extent they feel comfortable
- Listen/be open
- Help with practical tasks, basic needs, and chores
- Let them decide what is best for them. While it is common for a friend or parent to have feelings and opinions about if one should report or not, it is important to support what the survivor decides is best for themselves. Give control to the survivor as much as possible.
- Assure them they did the right thing to survive
- Remind the survivor that they are not responsible for what happened. It is common for survivors to experience feelings of self blame and shame. It is okay to normalize these responses and remind the survivor that they are not responsible for the perpetrators actions.
- Summarize what you hear
- Normalize and validate their feelings
- Ask if they want to know about support resources, and help them explore the options and choice, but allow them to choose how they engage with those resources. With consent from the survivor, call OVA together to make an appointment or get their questions answered anonymously by phone, walk the survivor to OVA to meet with an advocate counselor in person.
- Respect the survivor’s need for privacy and their desire to talk or not talk about the details of the event.
- Give them time, space, and patience as needed
- Acknowledge your own feelings of anger, concern, sadness, etc. and seek counseling for yourself to help process your reaction to the trauma
Unsupportive Responses & Things to Avoid
- Taking control any more than you have to
- Escalating the situation
- Defining or labeling the experience, instead use the language the survivor is using in describing the event
- Asking why questions such as “Why did you…?” or “Why didn’t you…?”Why questions tend to imply blame on the survivor for what occurred
- Telling them what they “have to” do or “should” do. Making decisions for them can lead to further disempowerment and control being exerted over them
- Verbalizing judgment in the moment. While it is normal to have personal opinions about a situation, expressing them to a survivor may lead to blame and shame
- Telling them you “know how they feel”. No one can ever really know how another person feels, even if they have experienced the same kind of potentially traumatic event
- Talking about how you feel takes the attention away from the survivor’s feelings and experience
Supporting someone who has experienced a traumatic event can be difficult. It is important for supporters and loved ones (also known as Secondary Survivors) to get their own support and take care of themselves. This may include seeking counseling or attending a Secondary Survivors workshop. The Office of Victim Assistance (OVA) is a resource for free and confidential support. In addition, workshops for secondary survivors of sexual assault are offered by Moving to End Sexual Assault (MESA) in Boulder at 303-443-0400 and The Blue Bench in Denver at 303-329-9922. Other workshops are periodically posted on OVA’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/CUvictimassistance Please click here to learn about the impact of secondary/ vicarious trauma.