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How Can You Talk to Loved Ones about Their Trauma?

Author of Blind Devotion shares her experiences with her military husband's PTSD and offers thoughts on how to open communications.

Author of Blind Devotion shares her experiences with her military husband's PTSD and offers thoughts on how to open communications.Every relationship in which trauma is present in one or both parties is unique and must be negotiated carefully over time as healing comes to the trauma victim and to those around him or her. I am not an expert in this area, but here are some suggestions that have worked for [my husband] Sean and me as we have moved forward slowly in recovery:

  • Try not to discuss the trauma and/or the post-traumatic stress symptoms at times of high stress or tension. If possible, wait for a time when both parties are calm and when there are no distractions.
  • Approach the discussions with compassion and concern, not accusations or judgment.
  • Prepare yourself mentally and spiritually to hear things that may be difficult to listen to. Practices such as meditation, prayer, a "cleansing" walk, reading an inspirational passage, or making a call to a friend or a sponsor before you talk with your loved one about the trauma may help you stay calm and at peace, despite the difficult topic.
  • Establish boundaries beforehand so that each person feels comfortable saying, "This is a lot for me to process right now. I need to walk away for a while, but I promise to come back and continue this discussion with you later." Each party must be willing to respect those boundaries, no matter how much he or she would prefer to continue the conversation at that time.
  • Be mindful of your nonverbal communication during the discussion. Facial expressions, body posture, and level of eye contact can communicate unintended messages that may be perceived as judgment, scorn, horror, or rejection. Do your best to communicate acceptance.
  • Respect your loved one's wishes as they relate to creating a comfortable setting. Your loved one may want you to touch him or her as the two of you talk (holding a hand or putting a hand on an arm or leg), or he or she may reject any physical contact at all. Your loved one may want to sit face-to-face, or prefer not to look at you at all. It was hard for me to accept, but Sean usually preferred to sit in a chair across the room from me or stand behind me when we discussed anything related to his trauma or his post-traumatic stress symptoms.
  • Try to keep a mental separation between your loved one and the trauma. There may be aspects of your loved one's trauma that disturb you or even frighten or anger you--it will help to remember that your loved one is not the trauma. You can separate these two and continue to love and accept the person regardless of what he or she has done or experienced.
  • Take things slowly--don't expect a loved one to pour out every detail of his or her trauma the first time that you discuss it. It may take weeks, months, or even years to fully comprehend what your loved one has experienced. Be patient enough to let your loved one share as little or as much as he or she chooses and at a comfortable pace.
  • Avoid any further discussions with your traumatized loved one if he or she reacts strongly while discussing the trauma--or if you fear that he or she will. Wait until you can solicit the help of a mental health professional to facilitate the sharing process.
  • Do not hold your emotions inside if you are disturbed, frightened, angry, or otherwise distressed after your conversation with a traumatized loved one. It is important for you to talk with someone--a trusted friend, a therapist, a pastor/priest or other religious leader, or a sponsor (if you're in a Twelve Step program)--in order to protect your own health. Be aware that loved ones can develop secondary traumatic stress from "vicariously" being traumatized by a loved one's trauma.

Read more about one couple's journey with PTSD.

Excerpted from Blind Devotion: Survival on the Front Lines of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Addiction by Sharlene Prinsen. Hazelden Foundation, 2012. The informational bullet points were compiled from the author's experience and information found in Shock Waves: A Practical Guide to Living with a Loved One's PTSD by Cynthia Orange.

One Couple's Journey with PTSD

Author Sharlene Prinsen describes the night she first began to understand the sources of her husband's PTSD and the journey that lay ahead for both of them.

The war in Iraq had dragged on for three years by that time, and the television was full of special news programs and investigative reports about the ongoing battle. As I watched some of them, the term post-traumatic stress disorder jumped out at me more frequently when the programs featured soldiers who struggled when they returned from overseas.

Read more

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