Responding to Disclosure

The following suggestions may help you when someone you care about tells you about the abuse, neglect or violence they experienced.

The first person a survivor tells about their abuse or trauma experience is often someone they really trust – a close friend, family member or partner. When a survivor discloses to you, it can be overwhelming for them and for you. If a survivor does disclose, listen carefully and don’t interrupt. Most survivors want to be heard and believed. And to have their feelings validated.

Telling another person about what happened to them takes a lot of courage. It means overcoming the shame many survivors carry through life. And their belief that they are to blame for what happened to them. Often a disclosure comes with a lot of fear and other intense emotions.

This can mean that survivors are sensitive to your reactions. If a survivor feels dismissed or negated they will often shut down. And not seek further help. It’s not easy to hear about your friend or loved one’s trauma. However, it is important that you do, if the person wants to tell you. And that when you do, it is important that you listen compassionately. While many survivors do seek professional help, friends, family members and partners can provide a lot of support. It is a privileged position of trust. One in which a survivor needs to feel as safe and respected.

Talking is often an important part
of the process of recovery
- it can start with disclosure.

Talking about abuse or trauma for the first time, can be the first step towards healing. It doesn’t erase what happened, or its effects but it can help.

If a person discloses to you, it most likely means that they trust you and feel safe enough to speak. It is important that you help the person understand the need to stay safe when disclosing.  In the early stages of disclosure, some people want to tell their story over and over. This can sometimes cause them more trauma and doing so isn’t always safe.

You can support them to work out who they can talk to. For example, sharing what happened to them to someone they don’t know, may leave them vulnerable to that person’s response. e.g. the person to whom they disclose might be dismissive, blaming, judging or want to “top the story”. This can be particularly painful for a survivor who has just found the courage to talk about what happened to them.

Two woman hugging

Continue to listen and support the person:

Recovery is often not a straight path. It crosses the issues, layer by layer and piece by piece. This means that survivors need support at different times in their lives. Sometimes the impacts of their trauma can be intense and at others – less demanding. Many survivors find it hard to trust, feel safe, and talk about their experiences, including those they are close to. It is important to be patient as it is often a long process which can go on for years, decades or a lifetime. It can be very tiring for one person to support a survivor through this process – a support team can be a good idea. As a supporter you can help the person to develop a safe network of people. It could  include friends, family, and a range of helping professionals or services. Over time it can be source of care, empathy and safety.

Encourage the survivor you care about to seek professional support:

If you or someone you know is impacted by childhood trauma you can call Blue Knot Helpline and Redress Support Service on 1300 657 380 between 9-5 Mon-Sun AEST to speak with one of the counsellors. Trauma counsellors can support people to understand what happened to them and how it might have affected them. And explain how their brain and body holds the trauma. They can also help survivors develop strategies to work through their trauma and cope better day to day.

Education and resources:

Support the survivor to learn more about complex trauma and its impacts. You can benefit from learning more yourself. Blue Knot Foundation delivers workshops for supporters, when funding permits. These workshops help supporters understand the effects of trauma on those who experience and provide tools for positive change. There are lots of other resources on this website which can help too.

Support yourself through the process:

Supporting a survivor is often challenging and can be very stressful too. It can be harder if the person is in crisis or feeling overwhelmed. Because the process of recovery can take a long time, it is important for you to care of yourself as well. Finding your own support network, of friends, family and professionals, to whom you can turn is all part of your journey and that you can take with the survivor you are supporting. 

The following tips may help:

Listen, don’t judge:

Recognise that the survivor speaking with you has placed a great deal of trust in you. They may be scared about how you’ll react, concerned that you won’t believe them, or that you will feel differently about them. They may have blamed themselves for years and might be scared that you will blame them too. At times, it can be difficult to know what to say or do to help. Listen empathically and without judgement; let the survivor know that you care and that you believe them.

Don’t offer advice:

Ask the person if there’s anything you can do to help. What do they need right there, right now? Let them know that you are there for them if they need you. That you will listen if and when they want to talk. Reassure them that you feel the same about them as you always have. You still love and care for them.

Don’t share:

Don’t share someone else’s or your own story at this time. It is important at least initially to just be there for your survivor friend, family member or partner. When survivors are a bit further along in understanding what happened to them, it can be helpful to share your experience or someone else’s. Especially when there is a story of hope for recovery etc. It is safer not to overload survivors with other people’s experiences. Not until the survivor understands what happened to them and has some meaning and context to their experience. And understands the impact of their trauma, on their life and relationships, and has strategies in place to manage triggers.

Try to keep your own emotions in check:

When someone discloses, you can experience a range of emotions. Initially you may be in shock. You might struggle to make sense of what you’ve heard. Confused about what to say or how to help. You may feel angry and upset. Angry with the person who hurt the person you care about. Angry with the person you’re supporting for not telling you earlier. Sometimes the survivor might not have remembered what happened to them. At other times they may not have been able to express it in words. Disclosing means facing their trauma. And dealing with it. This is far from easy. It can only happen when a survivor feels ready and safe enough.

Don’t ask too many questions.

Let the person tell their story how they remember it. When people are traumatised and especially as children, they often don’t remember all of what happened to them. Some survivors might not remember any details. Try not to question this as it might make the person feel that you don’t believe them. Support the person to share when they are comfortable to share, and only what they are comfortable to share.

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