Learning that someone you care about has experienced a trauma – such as in combat, sexual or physical assault, or from a severe accident – may result in many reactions for you. Anger that the event happened, worry about how the person is coping, relief that they trusted you enough to explain, or a combination of feelings.
When people share their experiences and feelings with someone they trust – or disclose their trauma – it can be an important part of the healing process. Your loved one may not share everything at once, so your response can help lead to future conversations and support them getting treatment.
Here are some tips.
It may be hard to imagine some of the things you are hearing, yet it’s important to show that you believe what they are saying and feeling.
- Start with an affirming statement like, “I believe you and I’m here for you.”
- When people go through a trauma, they may not remember the details. You don’t need to push them to fill in the gaps.
When people share their experiences, it can be an important part of the healing process.
Connect and affirm their feelings
You do not need to “fix” the problems or “take away” their pain. Most people are looking for support and connection. Giving your loved one space to share and show their feelings is valuable.
- Connect with statements like, “I’m sad that you went through this.”
- Communicate that their feelings are not wrong. You can say something like, “I support you and won’t judge you.”
Even if it is uncomfortable or they appear to be in pain, do not change the topic.
- Respect the decision if someone is not ready to share everything. Try saying, “I’ll sit with you as long as you need me.”
Be aware of your reactions
You may wonder why they haven’t shared the trauma story before with you. Or you may be angry to learn that someone harmed your loved one or feel guilt that you could not prevent this or protect them. While your feelings are understandable, it is important to focus on your loved one in this moment.
- Do not assume that you know how they are feeling. It’s ok to just ask.
- It is possible that their disclosure also triggers something in you. (See resources below.)
- People who experienced trauma are often highly sensitive to nonverbal cues, like facial expressions or eye contact. Be open to explaining your personal reactions. For example, say, “I’m upset to learn that you are struggling,” rather than looking away.
Affirm that they are not alone.
- Explain that you do not see them differently.
- They may be worried about how you are impacted and want to protect you. Reassure them that you are willing to be present and able to cope. Find supports for yourself if needed.
- Thank them for trusting you and encourage them to consider treatment if struggling.
Try to avoid unhelpful responses.
- “It’s in the past,” or “you need to get over it,” minimize the impact of a trauma.
- Blame or implying they could have prevented the trauma will not build trust.
- Comparing their trauma to your own can backfire. Saying things like, “that’s not so bad, you should hear what I went though” is not supportive, even if you are trying to connect.
Continue to check in with your loved one, and consider sharing resources:
- If you or your loved one need help right away, call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) anytime. Press “1” for Veteran support.
- To learn more, download Understanding PTSD: A Guide for Family and Friends (PDF).
- Use the PTSD Family Coach mobile app for practical tools to support a loved one with PTSD and manage your own needs.
- If you feel a Veteran needs care, VA’s Coaching Into Care program can help you figure out what to say to them.