Helping Family Members Heal

When a family member has been through a traumatic event, it feels overwhelming and we often don’t know what to do to help.

  • If the survivor is under the age of 18, parents are able to make decisions on their child’s behalf, including but not limited to evidence collections, participation in criminal, legal and university avenues, and the initiation of subsequent counseling services.
  • If the survivor is over the age of 18, the survivor is no longer a minor and has the legal right to make decisions on their own, even if their wishes do not align with those of their parents.
  • Believe the survivor. Offer validation and remember that the trauma was not the survivor’s fault regardless of the circumstances. Refrain from placing blame on the survivor.
  • Be patient. Ask how you can be helpful to your family member and LISTEN to their responses. If the survivor is not a minor, refrain from attempting to “fix” your family member’s difficulties by pushing them toward resolutions they are uncomfortable with. Failing to respect the survivor’s wishes can lead to them pulling away from you and feeling more isolated and a greater loss of control.
  • Be aware that the survivor’s feelings and therefore their behavior can change from day to day and minute to minute. It is common for someone who has been through trauma to have mood swings or to be extremely indecisive.
  • If the survivor is not talking to you right now or you don’t know what to say, that’s okay. There is no need to fill the space with mindless words. You are making a powerful statement by just being there. Be available to your family member if/when they are ready to speak about their trauma or healing process.
  • Be mindful that not everyone experiences trauma the same. Everyone choses a different path to healing, and none is more right than the other. Remain supportive of your family member and understand that choices they make are a part of their healing process and which must occur in their own time.
  • Encourage self-care and be aware of warning signs that indicate emergency intervention may be warranted.
  • Take care of yourself. Not only is it important to be supportive to your family member, it is important to practice self-care to ensure your own well-being as well. This includes knowing when to reach out to access support resources for yourself, such as employee assistance programs through your workplace or counseling services in your community.

We don’t always know how to put these into practice, so here are some examples of helpful things to say:

  1. Would you like to talk about it?
  2. This must be very painful for you.
  3. How can I help?

We want to help and encourage as best we can in the ways we know how. However, we want to make sure we are not saying things which can actually be hurtful or add to the survivor’s stress. Keep in mind some things to avoid saying to your family member:

  1. “I understand how you feel.” Because we really don’t – we all have our own way of processing and our own feelings.
  2. “What happened? You’ll feel better if you talk about it.” That may not be true for them.
  3. “When this happened to me…” Let your loved one express their own story, they don’t need the added weight of worrying about you and your feelings at that time.
  4. “If you don’t press charges, they may do this to others”. The survivor may only be able to focus on their incident and on making decisions based on what is best for them.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to campus resources, such as the counseling center or the Victim Advocate Program (both of which are confidential) with any concerns or questions on how you can continue to help and support your family member in crisis.