How to Best Support a Trauma Survivor

When someone survives a traumatic event, it can be beneficial to have both personal and professional support through recovery. Leaning on personal supports can be just as important as speaking with a therapist, but as a friend or family member looking to provide support, it can be difficult to find the right words to say. These conversations can be uncomfortable and difficult to navigate, but it’s important to choose your words wisely as to not further harm or re-traumatize the survivor.

In this blog post, I list a number of phrases you should avoid when speaking with trauma survivors, as well as a few things you can say in order to best support your loved one. Let’s start with the former.

What Not to Say to a Person with Trauma

“Why didn’t you say anything at that time?” 

It’s incredibly common for survivors of trauma not to disclose what they’ve been through right away. Sometimes it takes years to work up the courage and speak with someone about it. Sometimes people don’t have any memories of their trauma, and sometimes these memories come back way later on in life. 

It can also be very painful to talk about past trauma, especially when it feels like no one else can possibly understand what you’re going through. If a loved one has opened up about past trauma, don’t question why it took them as long as it did to speak up. Simply be grateful they feel comfortable enough to talk to you now, and try to support them as best as you can. 

“I know what you’re going through”

Chances are, no you don’t! Unless you went through the exact same trauma, and have the same physical and emotional responses to trauma as your loved one, you do not know what they’re going through. Everyone responds to trauma differently, and comments like this tend to come across as minimizing the effects of the trauma. For the survivor, this trauma is theirs, and while it may not be something they are proud of, they are most likely working on owning their experience and their emotions. It’s important not to take that away from them.

“Let it go” or “Get over it”

Unfortunately, these are words that many survivors have heard from someone they’re close with. It is common for survivors of trauma to be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, and because PTSD is an invisible wound, it is often misunderstood as something that is being exaggerated. Just because you cannot see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. 

There is no ‘just get over it’ with trauma. Survivors do not choose to have these symptoms, and symptoms can be intrusive and incredibly debilitating. By saying things like ‘let it go’ or ‘get over it,’ you’re telling them that their feelings are too much, too dramatic, and taking too long to resolve. Each healing journey is unique, and you have no way of knowing how much work someone has already put in to get to where they are now. 

“Did that really happen?”

It is common for survivors of trauma to experience shame and guilt throughout the healing process. Many people blame themselves for what happened even if it may seem clear to you who is actually to blame in the situation. By questioning if it really happened, you’re validating and reinforcing any self-doubts the survivor has experienced over the years. This will ultimately slow the healing process, and maybe even cause your loved one to regress on their healing journey.

“It could have been worse”

This is another comment that minimizes the effects of the trauma and sends the message that the person is overreacting. What is traumatizing for one person may not be for someone else, and that is okay. Each person responds to trauma differently, but there’s absolutely no sense in comparing one trauma to another. Any survivor is hurting and trying to heal. It does not matter whose trauma was ‘worse.’ It can trigger feelings like shame and guilt, and really hinder the survivors healing journey.

“You should do/try _______”

As a loved one, the most important role you can play is being there for support, not giving advice on how to heal. Even if you’ve gone through something similar and feel like you understand, there’s no guarantee that what worked for you will work for them. And if they end up taking the advice you give but it doesn’t work out as they hoped, this can really hinder the healing process, and may even impact your relationship with your loved one. 

What Can You Say Instead?

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Oftentimes with trauma, survivors lose a sense of being in control when they went through that situation. If they feel forced to talk about it with loved ones, it can be triggering and bring up all of those old feelings of not being in control. Asking this question gives the survivor a chance to decide what they would like to do. Maybe they’re not feeling up to talking about it right now, and that’s okay. Giving them a sense of control in regards to this topic can be really helpful for their healing process. 

“I hear you”

One of the most difficult parts of the healing journey is feeling like you’re going through this alone. Sometimes being there with a listening ear is the best support you can provide your loved ones. Try practicing Active Listening. Active Listening means making a conscious effort to hear, understand, and retain the information being relayed to you. It does not always mean you have a response or advice to give. Instead, pay attention, show that you’re listening with feedback, and ask questions if there’s something you don’t fully understand. Simply saying, “I hear you” can mean the world. 

Are you a trauma survivor, or looking to better support a loved one struggling through their recovery? We can help. Give our office a call at (631) 503-1539. 

About the Author, Jennifer Tietjen, LMSW

Jennifer Tietjen is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) at Suffolk Family Therapy and is currently receiving supervision towards her clinical license under Kristy Casper, LCSW. She helps clients by providing the support, acceptance, and empathy they need as they face challenging life experiences. Jenn is passionate about helping clients overcome past trauma and make positive change in their lives. She is trained in EMDR therapy and is currently focusing her future training and experience on women’s issues. This includes maternal health concerns such as antepartum and postpartum depression and anxiety, and reproductive health issues including infertility.