Tips to help you when someone you care about tells you they were abused or traumatised as a child
The first person a survivor tells about their childhood abuse or trauma is often someone they really trust - a close friend, family member or partner. When a survivor discloses to you, it can be overwhelming for them and for you. If a survivor does disclose, listen carefully and don’t interrupt. Most survivors want to be heard and believed. And to have their feelings validated.
Telling another person about what happened to them takes a lot of courage. It means overcoming the shame many survivors carry through life. And their belief that they are to blame for what happened to them. Often a disclosure comes with a lot of fear and other intense emotions.
This means that survivors are very sensitive to your reactions. If they feel dismissed or negated they will often shut down. And not seek further help. It’s not easy to hear about your friend or loved one’s trauma. However it is important that you do, if they want to tell you. And that when you do, you listen compassionately. While many survivors do seek professional help, friends, family members and partners can provide a lot of support. It is a privileged position of trust. One in which a survivor needs to feel as safe and respected.
The following tips may help:
Listen, don’t judge: Recognise that the survivor has placed a great deal of trust in you. They may be scared about how you’ll react. Or concerned that you won’t believe them. Or that you will feel differently about them. They may have blamed themselves for years. They might be scared that you will blame them too. It can be difficult to know what to say or do to help. Listen empathically and without judgement; let the survivor know that you care and that you believe him/her.
Don’t offer advice: Ask them if there’s anything you can do to help. What do they need right there, right now? Let them know that you are there for them if they need you. That you will listen if and when they want to talk. Reassure them that you feel the same about them. You still love and care for them.
Don’t share someone else’s or your own story. It is important at least initially to just be there for your survivor friend, family member or partner. When survivors are a bit further along in understanding what happened to them, it can be helpful to share your experience or someone else’s. Especially when there is a story of hope for recovery etc. It is safer not to overload survivors with other people’s experiences. Not until the survivor understands what happened to them and has some meaning and context to their experience. And understands the impact of their trauma, as a child, and on their adult lives and relationships, and has strategies in place to manage triggers.
Try to keep your own emotions in check: When someone discloses, you can experience a range of emotions. Initially you may be in shock. You might struggle to make sense of what you’ve heard. Confused about what to say or how to help. You may feel angry and upset. Angry with the person who hurt the person you care about. Angry with them for not telling you earlier. Sometimes the survivor might not have remembered what happened to them. Or wasn’t able to express it in words. Disclosing means facing their trauma. And dealing with it. This is far from easy. It can only happen when a survivor feels ready and safe enough.
Don’t ask too many questions. Let the person tell their story how they remember it. When children are traumatised they often don’t remember what happened to them, either some or all of it. They might not remember any details. Try not to question this. It might make them feel that you don’t believe them. Just let them share what they are comfortable to share.
Remember, talking is part of the process of recovery: Disclosing starts the healing process. It helps minimise the impacts of the trauma but will never erase it.. It can be coped with in a healthier way. Try to speak with the person who experienced trauma about the importance of being safe when they disclose. In the early stages of disclosure, some people want to tell their story over and over again. It isn’t always safe for them to share their story. You can support them by helping them work out who they can talk to. For example, sharing what happened to them to someone they don’t know, may leave them vulnerable to that person’s response. e.g. they might be dismissive, blaming, judging or want to “top the story”. This can be particularly painful for a survivor who has just found the courage to talk about what happened to them.
Encourage the survivor you care about to seek professional support: If you or someone you know is impacted by childhood trauma you can call Blue Knot Helpline on 1300 657 380 between 9-5 Mon-Sun AEST to speak with one of the counsellors. Counsellors can help people understand what happened to them. And explain how their brain and body holds the trauma. They can also help survivors develop strategies to work through their trauma. And help them start to get on with everyday life.
Education and resources: Encourage the survivor to learn more about childhood trauma and its impacts. You can benefit from learning more yourself. Blue Knot Foundation delivers workshops for supporters, when funding permits. These workshops help supporters understand the effects of childhood trauma on those who experience it provides tools for positive change. Also access the extensive resources on this website for survivors and supporters.
Continue to listen and support them: Recovery is often not a straight path. It crosses the issues, layer by layer and piece by piece. Survivors need support at different times in their lives. Sometimes the impacts of their trauma can be intense; at others – less demanding. Survivors can find it hard to trust and feel safe. And to communicate clearly with those they are close to. For this reason, it is usually a good idea to have a support team. It can be too tiring for one person to be the only support person through this process. Often it is a long process; it can go on for years, decades or a lifetime. One of the first tasks of a supporter is to support the survivor to develop a safe network of people. This network can become as source of care, empathy and safety. The network could include friends, family, and a range of helping professionals or services.
Support yourself through the process: Supporting a survivor can be very stressful and often challenging. It can be harder during times of crisis, or when the survivor is overwhelmed. And it can take a long time. It is important for you to care for yourself. And find a network to support you too. This can include a counsellor or therapist as well.