When someone has gone through something as traumatic as sexual abuse or assault, it is important for others to communicate with that person in a manner that is sensitive and sympathetic to what the victim has endured. Engaging correctly with a survivor of sexual trauma can help him or her navigate the difficult aftermath of abuse. Trauma-informed communication is a system for talking to and interacting with a survivor that puts his or her safety and well-being first.
What Is the Definition of Trauma-Informed? What Is Trauma Communication?
Sexual assault is extremely physically, emotionally and psychologically traumatic for a survivor. Finding healing and closure from this severe type of crime can be difficult. Studies have found that collaboration with peers and support from others can be instrumental to a survivor’s healing. However, it is important for the people surrounding the sexual abuse survivor to understand how to appropriately and effectively talk to and interact with the individual.
Trauma-informed communication is an approach to engaging with survivors of sexual trauma. As a survivor tries to navigate life after being sexually abused or assaulted, the words, actions and behaviors of others can make a difference to his or her healing journey and mental wellness. Being trauma-informed or using trauma communication is a system for how to correctly engage with someone during this vulnerable time. It focuses on understanding the victim’s trauma, recognizing and avoiding triggers, and minimizing stress reactions.
What Are the Three Concepts of Trauma-Informed Communication?
Communication and trauma are connected because trauma affects the brain, and the brain is responsible for communication. This provides an opportunity for others who communicate with a survivor to do so in a manner that has a positive impact on the victim mentally and emotionally – rather than communicating in a way that triggers the victim and results in further psychological damage or re-traumatization. The principles of trauma-informed communication are centered around three key concepts:
- Realizing the prevalence of trauma. Even if you are unaware of it, you most likely know one or more people who have undergone some type of trauma, such as sexual abuse. Trauma is prevalent enough to assume that everyone you interact with is dealing with something.
- Recognizing how trauma affects people. Although everyone’s experience is unique, trauma often has psychological, emotional, mental and behavioral effects on a victim. It is important to recognize how trauma can make someone behave and see this as a sign of what the individual is going through.
- Responding by putting your knowledge into practice. Once you recognize trauma, respond with words and actions that show you are sympathetic toward the victim’s situation and wish to have meaningful interactions. This is a trauma-informed approach to communication.
With trauma-informed communication, thoughtful interactions can occur with survivors of traumas that can help them overcome what they have been through. It can help them navigate the aftermath of a trauma with fewer triggers and more tools for recovery. This type of communication is a system that everyone should learn, as you never know when you are going to encounter someone who has suffered through one or multiple traumas.
How to Practice Trauma-Informed Communication
Engaging in trauma-informed communication with a survivor of sexual assault or another type of trauma starts with believing the victim. Take everything the individual says at face value. This is not the time to question the victim’s story or blame the victim. Let the victim know that you believe him or her and are listening. Then, use these tips to effectively communicate:
- Practice active listening. The individual should know that you are really listening to what he or she is saying. Mirror the victim’s language to show him or her that you are making an effort to hear the words and understand.
- Communicate respectfully. This is a general common-sense practice, but it is especially important for trauma communication. Be polite, considerate and respectful when speaking to a survivor – even if the person appears to be angry or is lashing out at others.
- Use proper body language. Avoid body language that could make you appear confrontational, such as crossing your arms over your chest or putting your hands on your hips. This can cause a stressful situation to escalate further.
- Never touch a survivor without permission. Touch can be very triggering for a victim of physical trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse. Do not touch the individual without his or her permission, even if you mean well.
In your daily life, learn how to recognize the widespread impact of trauma, look for signs of someone who has experienced trauma, and interact and communicate with these people in a way that is geared toward recovery, not re-traumatization. Learning how to practice trauma-informed communication is useful in many settings, including health care, the workplace and in your personal life. You never know when you will meet someone who has experienced trauma.
Why Trauma-Informed Communication Is Important for Victims of Abuse
Trauma-informed communication can create a healthier and more stable environment for a survivor of abuse. Rather than being in a constant state of anxiety or fear of being triggered, a sexual abuse survivor can enjoy greater peace of mind by knowing that those he or she interacts with on a daily basis – such as a health care provider or employer – understand trauma and how to communicate carefully and respectfully. Trauma communication can prevent triggers and backslides in a victim’s psychological recovery.
Victims of abuse deserve safe spaces where they are heard and respected. The trauma they endured should not be ignored; nor should they be punished for the aftereffects of abuse, such as behavioral outbursts at school or work. Trauma-informed communication provides guidelines for those who interact with abuse survivors. It enables teachers, employers, counselors, law enforcement, doctors and loved ones to speak to a survivor in a way that is helpful, healing and humanizing. It can make a significant difference to the survivor’s overall well-being.
Use a Trauma-Informed Approach in Your Life
Since you never know what someone you are interacting with has been through, it is wise to always use trauma-informed communication techniques when interacting with others, especially if someone has exhibited signs of trauma, such as outbursts at work or chronic anxiety. Be kind, respectful and open to listening to what the survivor has to say. Even if you don’t have the power to reverse what survivors went through, trauma-informed communication can help them get through their painful experiences.