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"This Isn't Who You Are": How Understanding Trauma Helps Us Understand Survivors

By Evy Yeager
April 13, 2018

For those who have experienced violence or abuse, trauma is much more than just a buzzword. At Safe Horizon, it informs the way we approach all of our work with survivors. A trauma-informed framework involves understanding, recognizing, and responding to the effects of all types of trauma.

Trauma can present ongoing challenges that make it difficult for survivors to access the services they need. Some service providers who don’t use a trauma-informed lens may respond in ways that are not helpful, or simply disregard clients as “difficult.” For example, “A client may refuse to meet with an advocate who identifies as male because their abuser identified as male. At first, it may seem that the client is not interested in accessing these services, but it is important to remind ourselves that there is a reason behind the client’s refusal. For most, the reason is past trauma, which they may have not ever disclosed. Their traumas may become barriers to accessing services,” says Eddie Tirado, Coordinator of HIV Prevention at Streetwork Project’s Drop-In Center in Harlem for homeless youth.

Recovering from assault or abuse is difficult for anyone, but it presents unique challenges for children. It’s easy to label children as misbehaving if they act out, without digging deeper into what is influencing their behavior. “A lot of children who have witnessed or experienced abuse may behave in a certain way that can be seen as bad. It’s their way of coping with all that they’ve been through,” says Jennifer Venturino, Childcare Supervisor at Rose House, one of our eight domestic violence shelters. “They may act out in certain ways if they feel uncomfortable if there are loud noises that trigger them. People think, ‘He doesn’t listen,’ or ‘She really misbehaves.’ but that’s not what’s really going on.

What is a more helpful response? In our domestic violence shelters, children are in a safe environment, but it’s also a new and unfamiliar one. “We try to make them feel as comfortable as possible.” Venturino continues. “If the activity isn’t working for them for whatever reason, we ask, ‘Is there something else you’d rather do?’” says Venturino. “Having a choice is helpful.

Offering choice is an important principle of a trauma-informed approach. Each individual, whether an adult or a child, has unique life experiences that influence the way they think, feel, and act. Everyone deserves to define for themselves what feels safe or comfortable.

Consider common conversations about domestic violence. “Why don’t you just leave?” is a constant refrain, but it implies that there is a clear choice when that is rarely, if ever, the case. Domestic violence can take many different forms, all used to control someone: physical abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, threats to physical or financial safety, and often sexual assault.

Sexual assault doesn’t only happen with strangers,” says Jillian Torres, Director of Safe Horizon’s staff at the Manhattan Family Justice Center. “This is something I learned when I was helping clients draft petitions for orders of protection. There were times they had to sleep with their abusers in order to keep them calm. That was an ‘Aha!’ moment for me. Although they are in a relationship, this is a form of sexual assault.

It’s important to distinguish between true consent and a coerced “yes.” “If there’s physical violence happening, coercion into sex can seem like the lesser evil,” Torres explains. “They might think, ‘I don’t want to do this, but getting hit is worse. I know that if I put up a fight it will be worse for me.’

Supporting survivors as they plan for their safety is another important aspect of looking through a trauma lens. Abuse and assault can affect all kinds of decisions survivors have to make, frequently out of self-preservation. It’s important to respect their decisions while exploring all the options available. Survivors are experts in their own experience.

Jordan Hall, Senior Case Manager, Brooklyn Criminal Court Program

At Safe Horizon we train our advocates to offer options without judgment. “People don’t understand that it’s really hard to come forward,” says Jordan Hall, Senior Case Manager, Brooklyn Criminal Court Program. “We have to let survivors be ready when they want to be ready. Frequently we’re [Safe Horizon advocates] the first people that they are disclosing to. When survivors have an opportunity to talk to an advocate who really listens and lets them guide the conversation, often past [unaddressed] traumas can come up. It’s hard when you see that they kind of blame themselves. ‘I get myself into these situations all the time,’ they’ll say. I tell them, ‘This is just something that happened to you. This isn’t who you are.’

Trauma doesn’t have to be defining. Learning about trauma and the effects it can have can help survivors regain control of their life and move forward. Too often, survivors of abuse are left alone with their pain, often thinking their reactions mean that something is wrong with them, when in fact these reactions are completely normal and can be addressed. Using a trauma-informed approach to healing helps survivors feel validated and supported.

As a society, we need to acknowledge that all survivors deserve healing. We must offer authentic support, recognizing a survivor’s right to name their own experiences, and accept their normal reactions to the hurt they’ve experienced. No one should have to deal with trauma alone, and every survivor deserves access to trauma-informed care.

Safe Horizon offers trauma-informed support and other services for survivors of violence and abuse. To find out more about the help available to you, call our 24-hour hotline at 1-800-621-HOPE (4673).