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.

Supportive/Positive Responses 

  • Take the situation seriously
  • 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, colleague, or parent to have feelings and opinions about various things, like what they may need or should do or not do, it is important to support what the survivor decides is best for themselves.
    • Give control to the survivor/the impacted party as much as possible.
  • Assure them they did what they needed to do to survive what happened.
  • Remind the survivor that they are not responsible for what happened, after you validaite this common feeling.
    • It is common for survivors to experience feelings of self blame, guilt, and shame.
    • It is important to validate these responses and then remind the survivor that they are not responsible for other's 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 impacted party, call OVA together to make an appointment or get their questions answered anonymously by phone, bring 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 support for yourself to help process your reaction to the traumatic exprience of someone you are helping.

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 even.t
  • 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 judgement 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 traumatic event. We have different backgrounds, identities, access to resoruces, etc.
  • Talking about how you feel takes the attention away from the survivor’s feelings and experience, stay focued on the survivor.