People have a difficult time opening up about previous traumatic experiences. These might be events that have haunted them for quite some time now. If you know someone who recently just revealed a bad experience that they don’t usually share with anybody else, finding the appropriate way to respond might feel like a daunting task. To help, we created a list of questions that may be too harsh and which questions may help instead.
Friendly disclaimer: The information in this video is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images, and information, contained in this video is for general information purposes only and does not replace a consultation with your own doctor/health professional.
WHAT YOU SHOULDN’T ASK
1. Why didn’t you say anything sooner?
Trauma survivors often have second thoughts about relaying their experiences to other people. They may think that others won’t believe what they’ve gone through, and sometimes they downplay the past because they think they shouldn’t make a big deal of it. It might help to consider their mental state and be patient about when they’re opening up about something they’ve gone through whether it be something that occurred recently or a long time ago.
2. Isn’t this all in your head?
People who have undergone something traumatic know the psychological effects it has more than anyone else. Pointing this out to them won’t make it easier. Furthermore, trauma may impact a person both in the mind and in the body. Initial reactions to trauma may include anxiety, confusion, sadness, and dissociation which can greatly influence how they interact with other people socially, romantically, and sexually.
3. Was it really that bad?
What one person finds traumatizing may not be for another. By asking this question, you are downplaying the impact of the event on that person and this may lead to them feeling like they are overreacting. They might even choose to shut down and repress what they feel because in their mind: it’s not that bad.
4. It’s been a long time, why haven’t you moved on?
Different people have different approaches in life. The time it takes for them to find peace with previous trauma is just one of them. If someone is still uncomfortable or emotional talking about something that happened many years ago, this means that the event likely maintains a place in their mind. The occurrence might have impacted them deeper than what you think and that’s why it might be best to just stay by their side and provide support when needed.
5. Don’t you think this happened because you did/didn’t do this…?
Victim blaming is an act that occurs when a victim of a crime is held responsible – in whole or in part – for crimes committed against them. By asking this question, you may be suggesting that the person had something to do with the bad event, even if they couldn’t do anything to change it. This may come off insensitive and might lead the victim further into a state where they blame themselves and feel like they have to do something to correct their “error”.
6. Do you know this happened to me, too?
When a person opens up to you about previous trauma, you naturally want to respond with something empathetic to show them they’re not alone. However, this person probably dealt with a lot of self-contemplation just to get the courage to talk to you about it in the first place. Suddenly talking about your personal problems might make them feel unheard or even evoke feelings of wanting to take care and listen to you – and now the topic has shifted completely. That is why it is encouraged to listen to what they have to say without interjection.
WHAT TO ASK INSTEAD
1. Do you want to talk about it?
Helping a trauma victim means providing them a safe space where they are able to choose what they want to do on their own time. It’s important to ask if them if they want to talk about something that happened in the past or if just want you to be there with them. If they do decide to talk about it, it is encouraged to listen and be patient.
2. Do you want to take a break?
Sometimes, the memory of what happened in the past might be too triggering for the person talking about it. If you find that they are visibly uncomfortable or about to have an emotional breakdown, it’s good to ask them if they want to take a break. It might help to get them a glass of water and to offer words of comfort and support like It wasn’t your fault or I know it isn’t fair.
3. Is there anything I can do to support you?
There are many ways you can offer support to someone with previous trauma. Sometimes, just being with them through physical presence is enough. It is a way of showing care and it makes them see that you are patient and aren’t rushing them to do anything they don’t like. You may also provide options. Find out the things they like to do as well as their limits. What makes them happy? It helps to talk to them about these things to make sure they’re comfortable.
4. Would you like to do something fun today?
Trauma survivors will most likely appreciate you asking them about what to do rather than planning something in advance. This makes them feel that no one is taking forceful control of the situation. You may find it helpful to ask them about previous hobbies or what they always wanted to do in order to give them suggestions for daily sources of enjoyment. Do they like to watch movies? Are they interested in picking up a new instrument? You may be creative in suggesting recreational activities that will possibly fill their time happily. Performing it with them is good, too!
5. How are you?
After someone opened up about a previous traumatic experience to you, checking up on them regularly is a nice way of saying I heard you and I care. Most of these people don’t get over a bad experience just after deciding to open up about it, but you can always be a support person in their journey to recovery. If you keep checking and asking what they’re doing, it may make them feel aware of your presence and not feel so alone.
Someone talking about a previous traumatic experience requires a lot of willpower and courage. You may also have to consider that you’re the person they’ve told this to. Feelings of hopelessness and being lost are common, but it’s significant to remember that they probably wanted to tell you because they wanted someone trustworthy to just listen. If they wanted to get outside professional help, you may guide them to do so, but only after patiently gauging their intentions and what they feel comfortable with. When the time comes you want to suggest proper medical help, it is encouraged to use sensitive and empathetic language like:
6. I appreciate you telling me about this. I also believe it deserves the right amount of support from someone who knows what they’re doing. Would you like my help in reaching out to someone?
If they want to, they will. Be the friend that helps.
We hope this article helped you. Have you ever had anyone tell you a traumatic experience? How did you handle it? We would appreciate hearing about your stories in the comment section below. Thank you for reading and see you next time!
Borresen, K. (2021, April 13). What NOT To Say When Someone Shares Their Trauma With You. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/what-not-to-say-trauma-survivor_l_60661051c5b67e90cd1723a6
NCBI. (2014). Understanding the Impact of Trauma – Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services – NCBI Bookshelf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/
Rehman, A. (2021, August 1). Things Never to Say to Trauma Survivors. Grief Recovery Center. https://www.griefrecoveryhouston.com/things-never-to-say-to-trauma-survivors/
The Canadian Resource Centre For Victims of Crime. (2009, August). Victim Blaming. Crcvc.Ca. https://crcvc.ca/docs/victim_blaming.pdf
Todd, C. L. (2019, April 1). How to Be There for Someone Who Survived a Horrible Trauma. SELF. https://www.self.com/story/support-trauma-survivor