Adverse childhood experiences are a public health crisis affecting more Americans than diabetes and heart disease combined.
Many people instinctively understand that compassionate support is important for people who have lived through abuse and trauma, but instinct can make for a poor teacher. Our initial response to a survivor’s disclosure can have a profound impact on his chances for recovery.
It is significantly more likely than not that a given person has experienced at least one form of childhood trauma or abuse. For many survivors, disclosures of a painful past are often met with doubt, anger, or apathy. These negative reactions can reinforce feelings of shame and fear that make it harder for survivors to engage in the work of healing — which almost always requires survivors to acknowledge and talk about what they have experienced and how it has impacted their lives.
While these concepts might seem obvious in the abstract, without training, people often freeze in response to a crisis. Worse, they may take action that can cause serious harm. Without training in CPR, it’s unfair to expect someone to know how to help a choking person. Something similar can happen when someone discloses a trauma. Not knowing what to do to help in that moment, a person may back away in fear, or push a person who is hurting away.
Providing empathic support to someone in a moment of crisis can be a critical, life-saving response much like CPR can be.
In hopes of giving a simple way to remember the elements of an empathic response I’ve reduced the principles to three simple steps: BPT.
B=Believe. In far too many circumstances, people respond to trauma survivors with hatred, disbelief, and scorn.
However, openly disclosing traumatic experiences and associated feelings of fear and pain is one of the hardest things any person can do. The act of saying out loud that he or she has been harmed often puts the person at risk of being shunned and/or re-victimized. This alone warrants giving someone the benefit of the doubt.
Even if the details of a survivor’s story seem incredible or impossible, a witness to that disclosure can at the very least believe someone else’s pain is genuine and worthy of compassion.
P = Stay Present. Many people feel a powerful need to intervene in a crisis, and immediately turn their focus to trying to “fix” the underlying problem. But even in the cases that cry out for intervention, like child abuse or sexual or domestic violence, it is important to recognize that a person hearing an initial disclosure is rarely in a position to do anything constructive about the underlying issue at that moment.
They may not be trained to properly intervene. They may be too closely connected to the survivor to act in a rational and informed manner; or the disclosure may come years (perhaps decades) after the trauma itself.
A simple acknowledgement that someone is not alone in this moment, combined with an affirmation of the survivor’s courage for sharing something painful, is the essence of a grounded, compassionate response. This can help ensure focus remains on the survivor and his or her immediate needs. This is important because it communicates to a survivor that this place in this moment is safe.
T = Say “Thank you.” A person who tells you a painful story is giving you an invaluable gift – trust. Honor that person by saying “Thank you for sharing that with me.” With this response a moment of great fear and vulnerability can be transformed into a moment of healing and empowerment.
There is a natural tendency to turn away from trauma and pain. But the data is clear that trauma and abuse survivors are all around us. Promoting empathic listening is profoundly important, and potentially life changing.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says, “children who are listened to and understood do much better than those who are not. The response to the disclosure of sexual abuse is critical to the child’s ability to resolve and heal the trauma of sexual abuse.”
The same is true for most other types of abuse and trauma in my experience, and for adult survivors as well. Sometimes all a survivor needs to take another step forward is to know is that his voice has been heard.
Christopher M. Anderson is the executive director of MaleSurvivor.org, a nonprofit organization that provides critical resources to male survivors of sexual trauma and all their partners in recovery. He resides in New York City.