It’s natural to want to make someone you love and care for feel better again, but it’s important to accept what has happened. There is nothing you can say or do to make the person’s pain disappear. That will happen with time, rest, and appropriate support. Explain to them that you are sorry about what they have had to experience and that you are there to help them in any way they need.
Offer support after a traumatic or distressing event
It’s always good to ask the person who has experienced a traumatic or distressing event what you can do to support them. Suggestions for supporting a friend or family member include:
- Make time to be with the person and make it obvious that you are available. Sometimes, there can be a tendency to want to move someone on before they are ready, because the traumatic experience makes us feel uncomfortable. Try to avoid doing this. People who have had a traumatic experience can feel very reassured by human contact.
- Don’t take their feelings to heart. They may be irritable, depressed, angry or frightened. Strong feelings and emotional outbursts are common – try not to take it personally. It is important to recognise that they have had a stressful experience and that their reactions are normal and will subside in time.
- You can help by reassuring the person that their reactions are normal.
- Offer practical support. You could do the housework or the grocery shopping for them, or pick up their children from school.
- Encourage the person to take good care of themselves, for example, by eating well, avoiding alcohol, drugs or stimulants, and by attempting to maintain regular sleeping habits.
- You may need to let the person have time by themselves.
- Let them know you are there for them without judging.
- Suggesting to a person that they maintain regular daily routines and habits can be helpful as well.
Talking about the trauma can be important
- Allow the person to talk about what happened, even if they become upset. Just be calm yourself and listen carefully – getting upset too doesn’t help.
- Don’t insist on talking if the person doesn’t want to. They may need time to be alone with their thoughts. Tell them you are there to listen whenever they feel ready.
- Reassure them you care and want to understand as much as possible about what happened to them. They may say you can’t possibly understand what they went through and shut you out. If they take this approach, they risk becoming isolated from their support networks. Be patient and see what else you can do to help.
- Try to make sure there is someone else they can talk to if they don’t want to talk to you about it.
- If there are some difficult decisions to be made, talk about the situation with the person and help them to identify the different options. However, don’t make the decision for them. Also, if it is only a short time after the traumatic event, suggest that it might be a good idea to wait a little longer before making a decision.
What not to do or say
Some ways in which it can be unhelpful to respond include:
- Don’t avoid talking about the event.
- Don’t think you know how the person should think, feel or behave. Everyone’s response is different.
- Don’t use general phrases such as ‘look on the bright side’ or ‘look for the silver lining’, but help them think about what they do have.
- Don’t judge their thoughts or feelings – being accepted helps put things in context.
- Don’t be impatient or expect them to ‘get over it’ in a certain time. It can take months or longer to recover from an event.
- Don’t insist they need professional help. Not everyone who experiences a distressing event needs treatment. It will be more effective if they get it when they want it, even if that is later than is ideal.
Help them to relax and get involved in activities
Relaxation and fun are important recovery tools. Suggestions include:
- Try to involve the person in physical activity, such as walking or swimming. Exercise burns off stress chemicals, reduces muscle tension and encourages better sleep.
- While the person needs to spend some time alone, help them to strike a balance. Socialising – even low-key events such as sitting around with friends – can help to reduce stress levels.
- Laughter is a wonderful antidote to stress. Find ways to help them to smile or laugh.
If at any time you are worried about your mental health or the mental health of a loved one, call Lifeline 13 11 14.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Your local community health centre
- Australian Psychological Society Referral Service Tel. 1800 333 497
- Lifeline Tel. 13 11 14
- NURSE-ON-CALL Tel. 1300 60 60 24
Things to remember
- Find out as much as you can about distress, so you can understand something about what to expect.
- Allow the person to talk about what happened, even if they become upset.
- Don’t insist they need professional help – not everyone who experiences a traumatic event needs therapy.
It can be difficult to know how to help someone you love and care for when they have gone through a distressing or frightening event.It’s natural to want to make someone you love and care for feel better again, but it’s important to accept what has happened. There is nothing you can say or do to make the person’s pain disappear. That will happen with time, rest, and appropriate support. Explain to them that you are sorry about what they have had to experience and that you are there to help them in any way they need.It’s always good to ask the person who has experienced a traumatic or distressing event what you can do to support them. Suggestions for supporting a friend or family member include:Suggestions include:Some ways in which it can be unhelpful to respond include:Relaxation and fun are important recovery tools. Suggestions include:
Communicating with a partner is essential in any relationship, but it is especially critical—and, often, especially difficult—in a relationship with a person who has experienced childhood trauma. Trauma can leave long-lasting wounds that impair your partner’s ability to feel, think, and behave in healthy ways. At the same time, they may struggle to admit to the depth of these wounds due to fear, shame, or simply having learned that their feelings don’t matter. In a similar way, you may struggle to cope with the impact of their trauma on your relationship, yet feel unable to communicate those struggles in healthy ways or at all. As a result, it becomes impossible to fully understand each other, leading to hurt feelings, confusion, and, sometimes, resentment.
For your partner, being able to talk about their trauma and its effects can be tremendously powerful and creating an environment in which that can happen is essential. Show that you are willing to listen and support and if they do share, a simple, “Thank you for telling me. I love you and I’m here for you” is often the best thing you can possibly say. However, your loved one may not be ready to talk about their experiences—in fact, they may never want to talk about their experiences—and that is okay too. Disclosure can be a complicated process and isn’t useful or emotionally safe for everyone in every situation. Accept and respect your partner’s needs and don’t push them for information they are not prepared to offer.
At the same time, there are important things to communicate aside from details of trauma. Being able to freely share thoughts and feelings without judgment can be essential to ensuring your partner feels safe and cared for while giving them the opportunity to process those thoughts and feelings verbally. This includes day-to-day experiences as well as overarching needs and preferences that will help clarify how to create a stronger, healthier, and more trusting relationship while minimizing the risk of retraumatization. For example, it’s important for your partner to be able to tell you if they do not want to be touched or spoken to in a certain way or if there are sounds, places, or situations that will be triggering for them. Discuss how they want to be supported if they experience a flashback. Discuss how their needs and preferences change over time, including in response to treatment. It is only with this understanding that you will be able to be present for your loved one in a way that deepens your bond.
Of course, communication is not a one-way street and it is critical that you communicate as well. This can include making it clear that you do not judge them, that you support them, and believe them—often hearing these things explicitly and repeatedly is necessary to cut through the deep layers of shame and long-held silence surrounding childhood trauma. However, you may also want to talk about the challenges you are having, such as feeling confused and like you don’t know what you should be doing to support them; giving them that information will help them better understand your reactions and not mistake your confusion for rejection or apathy. Tell your partner what you want in order to provide better support and to have a better relationship in general. Remember that you are an active participant in your relationship and have your own needs and express those needs in productive ways. If you find that you are unable to resolve communication difficulties on your own, seeking the guidance of a couples therapist or a childhood trauma treatment program that includes couples therapy can help you open up a healthy dialogue.
You should also always bring up concerns about any self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse or self-harm and encourage them to seek treatment or to discuss these issues with their current treatment provider.