How to Support a Friend or Family Member After a Traumatic Event

By Nouelle Dorrow

A number of courageous individuals have arrived at my office entrusting me to sit with them as they process deeply personal, traumatic incidents. When I ask about the most distressing aspect of the incident, the response is often not the event itself, but the subsequent invalidating response from a family member or friend. Research has shown that the family environment is a better predictor of psychopathology than the actual experience of a traumatic incident. Negative responses to disclosure of trauma have been associated with development of more severe PTSD symptoms, dissociative episodes, and overall psychological distress. Insecurity within relationships is a risk factor for development of mental health problems, and studies have shown that secure attachment can make a big difference in whether one develops PTSD following trauma. Trauma can result in a loss of connection to the self, to others, to the world. There is a greater likelihood of suffering from symptoms of PTSD with the absence of another’s supportive presence following the traumatic event. If you are wondering how to be there for a friend or family member, you may choose to draw from a few of the concepts below.

Ask. Don’t assume

The responses to trauma are vast and diverse. Elements of an event may be experienced as traumatic by one individual and innocuous by the next. For your loved one, it is important to ask what about the event was most distressing for them. Remember it may be the case that your loved one’s unique existing coping
mechanisms at some point became overwhelmed, putting their autonomic nervous system into fight-flight-or-freeze mode within seconds. This type of response is outside their conscious control. To avoid creating an invalidating environment for someone you love, leave your assumptions at the door. Instead, using cautious curiosity, find out what your loved one needs now. According to them. Not you. Not the latest book you read.

Respect Boundaries

If you have chosen to ask, not assume, then continue to respect what your survivor has requested, even if it is not what you would like or what you would anticipate needing in their shoes. Respect your loved one’s boundaries, both physical and emotional. Boundaries exist to protect others and ourselves.
Remember yourself. It can be easy to begin to feel helpless and overwhelmed as you are with your loved one. In some cases, secondary trauma can result from caregiving if your own trauma is triggered, so it is important to continue to remember to take care of yourself too. This may include not letting them cross your boundaries.

Stay Connected

Oftentimes when people are experiencing grief or going through the grieving process, they may want to isolate themselves from the people they care about and love the most. As bad as you may want to isolate, it is important to remain connected to your family members, as well as your friends. Isolation can cause long term mental health effects such as depression. It is also important to remember that part of the reason we may want to isolate ourselves is because we may feel that the people around us may not understand what you are going through. It is okay to tell a family member or a friend how you are truly feeling. If anything, that may help them be able to help and understand you better.

Above all, believe

Recognize the involuntary nature of traumatic responses and be less concerned with the details of what happened. Remember the strength of each survivor and the courage it has taken to get to the point of disclosure. Research suggests that willingness to disclose traumatic experiences decreases when survivors anticipate being blamed or not believed. Your loved one’s response must be regarded as valid, regardless of how others perceived it. Do not judge. Instead, notice. Recognize they did not cause what
happened. Stay open to what you hear from your loved one, and accept them where they are right now.
Replacing an “Are you sure?” with “That sounds awful” can make all the difference. Remember, your friend or family member is a survivor. It is a privilege they have let you in, even though you cannot possibly know the extent of their terror. And with support from you and others, they have great capacity to heal.