For Supportive Family Members and Friends

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What is Relational Trauma? 

It can be challenging to support a friend or family member who has experienced relational trauma. 

Relational trauma differs from non-relational trauma in that it happens within the context of relationship to another. This sounds simple, but isn't. What this means is that relational trauma impacts the individual's understanding of self and other within context of relationship. 

For example: 
When someone is in a car accident trauma, there may be impacts which include: fear of driving, trauma response when driving down a particular road or on a highway. There might be sound triggers (i.e. the song which was playing at the time of the accident) or negative internalized messages about self, regarding guilt or shame around responsibility from the accident. 

When someone is harmed within relationship with another (even if it is a virtual stranger), the internalized messages can become more complex. There might be self-doubt around trusting others, feeling guilty, responsible, shameful, bad, deserving, different, not good enough, broken or damaged, unworthy, or unheard. These messages about self and others become part of the context of how the individual may interact with new people and relationships (whether caregiver, friend, teacher, boss, co-worker, etc.) 

Relational trauma impacts can be widespread and pervasive in someone's life. 

How Can I Help?
If you have a loved one who has experienced relational trauma; through sexual or emotional or physical or mental or financial violence, it can leave you feeling helpless or powerless to 'make things better'. Please know that even small responses can have a significant impact on their healing journey. Read some of the tips below on how you can be a supportive person in their life and can contribute to their healing. 


  • be non-judgmental: the way in which an individual responds to trauma is based on so many factors and past life experiences that we can not always understand why someone reacts the way they do.

  • be there for them: whether that is to laugh, to cry, or to listen, this is a very important role.

  • be supportive: allow for them to let you know what they need. Encourage them to trust their feelings and make space for their grief, as well as when they need to focus on something else.

  • help to build 'normal': when someone has experienced significant trauma it can feel like everything in their life has changed and won't be the same again. Ritual and routine can be a source of comfort for them. It can help to remind them that even though something terrible happened, they still have friends/work/school/etc. (Of course, some people need a break from this too - trust your loved one and support their decision). 


  • force them to make big decisions: whether it is about reporting to police or staying in a relationship, big decisions are best made when some considerable time has passed from a recent trauma.

  • tell them what they need: often in a relational trauma experience, it is implied that the individual can no longer trust their judgement. Minimize the ways in which you may accidentally contribute to this, while trying to help the person you love.

  • tell them that they ought to be 'over it': trauma has a profound impact on the brain and can take a long time to process and heal from. Instead, remind them that they can heal, and encourage them to find a knowledgeable support person to help the process.

  • forget who they are: they are still them, the person you care for and love. Despite the trauma, they are still themselves and reminding yourself (and them!) of this can be a powerful way to support them.