Things You Shouldn't Say to Trauma Survivors

Dealing with trauma is never a quick fix. We're talking about the kinds of events that often scar a person for life. This translates into deep anguish. It's hardly likely to dissipate if, although you want to help them, you trivialise their feelings.
Things You Shouldn't Say to Trauma Survivors
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2022

No one is immune to suffering blows and tragedies in life. So much so that there are few people who manage to avoid the imprint of psychological trauma in their lives. This might be due to neglect in childhood, school bullying, the loss of a loved one, aggression, adverse social events, or complicated emotional relationships.

The first time this term appeared was in 1880. However, the clinical reality was described in the writings of Herodotus on the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. C. This famous writer and geographer told the story of an Athenian spearman who suddenly lost his vision for no apparent reason or cause. Later, he discovered that the man carried with him the adverse memories of war.

Centuries later, in the First World War, British doctors and psychiatrists diagnosed many soldiers with what they defined as shell shock. We’ve come a long way since then in the treatment and psychotherapeutic approach to this condition.

Today, trauma tends to be due to more everyday events in our daily lives. However, we don’t all know how to address someone who tells us they’ve suffered a recent trauma or one who’s been suffering for a long time.

Knowing how to communicate with those who are suffering post-traumatic stress can act as an anchor and support for their recovery.

traumatized person
There are many people who live for years with the memory of an adverse event that they don’t know how to process.

What you shouldn’t say to trauma survivors

The word trauma evokes a narrative in which the individual is seen as a victim of an aggressor, an event, or a circumstance in the face of which they’re completely defenseless. After that experience, their mind gets stuck in the event, and they’re unable to process it. Their memory frequently returns to the traumatic events, and any stimulus triggers their memory of it.

Moreover, their behavior changes, their identity is altered, and their emotions run high. They find it difficult to sleep, and anxiety and stress completely blur their ability to control themselves. In fact, the physical symptoms, like the psychic, are both complex and disabling. In addition, we must remember that not everyone suffering from trauma will talk about it or request specialized help.

An investigation conducted by several universities around the world indicated that more than 70 percent of the people they interviewed declared that they’d suffered trauma. This data is overwhelming and it represents a reality that we mustn’t ignore. Trauma survivors need support, resources, and understanding. It all starts with proper communication.

Let’s take a look at what phrases, expressions, and comments are better to avoid when talking to these people and why.

Trauma is an unexpected event that threatens our life and integrity. It isn’t easy to process these experiences. If our environment doesn’t support us or doesn’t act in the appropriate way, it can be even more disturbing.

1. Why are you only telling me now and not when it happened?

People don’t always reveal traumatic events when they happen. They do it when they can. This means that parents may not know that their children were abused by third parties until they’re adults. Naturally, these revelations are surprising and disconcerting and they need to know how to respond to them correctly.

If someone has told you about a traumatic event they suffered, they need you to believe them without any trace of reproach and to be there for them.

  • The correct expression in these cases is “Thank you for telling me and trusting me. I love you and I’m going to support you”.

2. Keep going, it’s all in the past

Trauma survivors frequently hear devastating and hugely upsetting messages like  “Turn the page and move on”. These words invalidate both them and their pain. They know that the event belongs to yesterday, but they’re suffering in the here and now and need help at this exact moment.

  • The correct expression in these cases is: “You’re safe now. I’m here for you”.

3. From now on everything will be okay

It can be really tempting to tell someone who’s suffering that everything will be fine. It’s as if you’re trying to make their problems disappear by snapping your fingers. However, for those who are suffering, the problem or concern continues to exist, even if you don’t see it. As a matter of fact, there are few things that could be more hurtful and even crippling for them than having their concerns pushed aside in this way.

So avoid using these kinds of expressions and try to basically validate everything that they’re feeling. Don’t promise anything.

  • The correct expression in these cases is: “I know you’re suffering. I’m here for you. You’re safe”.

4. Let me help you

“Let me help you, let’s do this or that and you’ll soon feel better”. You might wonder why it’s wrong to tell them that you want to help and support them. However, you’re not a specialized professional and it’s better not to try and help. By all means, be supportive, but don’t seek to be the solution to their problem.

You must bear in mind that they have their own unique needs and characteristics that don’t always make it easy for you to help them. In fact, they may even make you feel frustrated and increase their suffering. So, don’t burden yourself with the responsibility of healing them.

  • The correct expression in these cases is: “What do you need? How can I help you?”
Traumatised boy in therapy
Coping with trauma must be done in a therapeutic environment. As family and friends, our job is to be close to them.

5. You have to learn to forgive

If their trauma stems from aggression or abuse, you might recommend that they forgive. Nevertheless, forgiveness isn’t always the solution, nor is it a mandatory step for overcoming trauma. As a rule, those who’ve suffered this type of experience carry with them a combination of fear, anger, and anguish.

Allow them to work through these emotions first. They won’t be able to forgive if they’re still gripped by rage and pain.

  • The correct expression in these cases is: “I know that you’re angry, it’s completely understandable”.

6. This experience will make you stronger

Not all suffering gives us strength, nor do we have to suffer to know what life is. Most of the time, pain is just that, wounds that we must heal to breathe again, traumatic events that must be overcome in order to move forward. Therefore, don’t fall into the hackneyed idea that just because trauma survivors have gone through an adverse experience that they’ll be stronger.

  • The correct expression in these cases is: “I understand that this experience has scarred you deeply”.

7. You must talk about your experience

Trauma survivors will talk about what happened when they feel ready and prepared.  Sometimes, having to talk about their experience will make them re-experience their suffering, and you may not know how to act in this situation. You must allow them to move forward on their journey in a therapeutic and specialized environment.

Try not to exert any pressure on them. That’s because other therapeutic mechanisms are often needed to manage trauma. Don’t think that by opening up about their trauma, everything will be resolved by magic. There’s a process they need to go through and there are guidelines.

  • The correct expression in these cases is: “If you need to talk about anything, I’m here for you”.

You might feel that some of these expressions we’ve suggested aren’t what you’d imagine to be appropriate in these kinds of circumstances. However, if you really want to help someone suffering from trauma, you’ll achieve a great deal by staying close to them and just being there for them. Obviously, it’ll require effort on your part, and you may not even feel entirely comfortable at times, but this is what it means to truly care for someone.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Benjet C, Bromet E, Karam EG, Kessler RC, McLaughlin KA, Ruscio AM, Shahly V, Stein DJ, Petukhova M, Hill E, Alonso J, Atwoli L, Bunting B, Bruffaerts R, Caldas-de-Almeida JM, de Girolamo G, Florescu S, Gureje O, Huang Y, Lepine JP, Kawakami N, Kovess-Masfety V, Medina-Mora ME, Navarro-Mateu F, Piazza M, Posada-Villa J, Scott KM, Shalev A, Slade T, ten Have M, Torres Y, Viana MC, Zarkov Z, Koenen KC. The epidemiology of traumatic event exposure worldwide: results from the World Mental Health Survey Consortium. Psychol Med. 2016 Jan;46(2):327-43. doi: 10.1017/S0033291715001981. Epub 2015 Oct 29. PMID: 26511595; PMCID: PMC4869975.
  • Day, Andrew. (2011). The relationship between anger and trauma: Some implications for programs that help manage problematic anger. Psychology of Anger: Symptoms, Causes and Coping. 243-252.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.