Why ‘What happened to you?’ is not the only question for families of survivors

Why what happened to you is not the only question for families of survivors families of survivors Heather Tuba

‘What happened to you?’ is not the only question for families of survivors

If you have been reading my blog for a while or any other trauma-related information, I am sure you are familiar with the question ‘what happened to you?’.

This question arises from the model of trauma-informed care, which frames a person’s present challenges in the context of past trauma. It’s important to understand the root cause as it orients away from blame and labels.

However, as a partner to a survivor, I find the question has limitations in terms of the realities of living with the present outcome on the family unit. It is helpful and important to understand the context but how does that translate into the practicalities of daily life?

For a family where one or both adults experienced childhood trauma, information on what happened is not enough. We need practical guidance on how to navigate life in the context of the outcome of trauma.

This leads to the real question(s) for families of survivors: What is still happening today and how is it impacting the present family unit?

Adaptations are what is still happening

The question ‘what happened?’ is always followed by ways of adapting to early life stressors. You may be familiar with other terms like defense mechanisms, coping strategies, or maladaptive behaviors. I acknowledge none of these terms as particularly kind.

All defenses are learned behaviors. You only develop psychological defenses because they were once necessary for self-protection. ~ Arielle Schwartz, PhD.

These adaptations to early life environment are behaviors, responses, and reactions that are not conscious or willful and are driven by areas of the brain responsible for survival (To learn more, see A Little Survival Guide for Partners). This is the outcome of trauma and unless resolved, these patterned brain responses continue.

This is where families struggle and suffer without adequate support.

For those of us who support survivors ‘what happened?’ is not the only question. It is not always about believing the events of our partner’s trauma.

It is in the question ‘what is still happening?’ we must meet and support families of survivors.

Why what happened to you is not the only question for families of survivors Heather Tuba families of survivors

How can families better support themselves and how can professionals better support families?

1. If you are a partner, it is vital you gain tools to support yourself.

A few suggestions:

  • Identify and orient towards your inner resources and competencies. Are you good at your job or another activity? What areas of your life bring you satisfaction and pleasure?
  • Find one friend with whom you can be as honest as you can. This may take time and persistence.
  • Learn a bit about the nervous system and how your partner’s reactions are impacting yours.

2. Trauma-informed therapy or healing modality for the person in the relationship with the complex trauma history.

The outcome of early life attachment trauma does not resolve on its own. If anything, the neurobiological imprints strengthen over the lifespan without adequate intervention.

3. Find ways to discuss what is happening with your children and teens.

Our children are impacted on a neurobiological level by what is happening too. They need their questions answered and age-appropriate explanations.

4. A shift in the way the clinical community disseminates information to the family unit.

It should not be up to the partner to research and to inform themselves about what is happening. It should not be up to the partner to figure out strategies to navigate trauma responses in the home.

If agreeable to the survivor and the partner, information handouts paired with in-person information sessions can bring relief and a sense of support to the family. I believe greater communication about the neurobiology of trauma and its impact on the family unit is crucial.

5. A shift in the way society and the mental health model view healing and recovery.

Most models of care for complex trauma focus on the individual as the patient/client. The reality is every single up-and-down is felt by the family unit.

We must stop reducing trauma recovery to a one person journey.

When it comes to families of survivors, we must move beyond the question ‘what happened?’ to ‘what is still happening for you?’. With this information, we can begin to better support families of survivors.

Partners of survivors, if you would like customized, individual support, please visit the page Work with me.

Photo by Szilvia Basso on Unsplash