Asking About Traumatic Experiences

Having knowledge about the experience of past trauma is important. Equally important is knowing how, when, where and why to ask about it, to acknowledge it in a way that feels comfortable and genuine, and is appropriate in the current circumstances. There are times when asking about trauma is not appropriate, and/or the provider must be mindful of guiding the conversation in a way that doesn’t lead the client to feel overwhelmed.

Adopting universal precautions would suggest that we relate to everyone based on an assumption that they have had traumatic experiences. The matter of universal screening is another important issue for which each organization must establish its own protocol. We can ask people about whether they have had traumatic experiences without encouraging them to describe these events in detail. In doing so, however, it is important that people know why the questions are being asked and to understand that they do not need to answer them.

A series of scenarios below outlines how to appropriately ask about trauma and respond in different circumstances.

How do I ask about trauma when a person doesn’t come out and say it, but gives other indications that they are having difficulties?

SCENARIO: You are having a conversation with someone who is talking about feelings, behaviours and thoughts that indicate they could be dealing with unresolved trauma, but they do not say that this is an issue for them. You are not sure how to address it, but feel it should be addressed.


Ask for clarification or for the individual to help you understand why the feelings, etc., are present. Invite them to talk more in depth about the trauma that may have occurred and is currently affecting them negatively. Some examples include “What are your thoughts about what these feelings might be connected to?”, “I’m wondering if you could say a bit more about the thoughts and feelings you have mentioned so I can understand how to be helpful,” “How long have you felt this way?”, and “It’s important and okay to go slow and take the time you need.”


Not providing a context for why you are asking. “You must have been abused” or “Was it a traumatic experience in your past that you haven’t dealt with yet that is causing these feelings?”

What if I ask about the trauma and say the wrong thing and make it worse?

SCENARIO: An individual is describing traumatic experiences at the hands of their mother during their childhood. They are very emotional, and you feel quite moved and saddened by their experiences. You take your time to decide how you would like to address this because you want to help them feel accepted and comfortable.


You will not make the situation worse if your response is validating, non-judgmental, and accepts the person’s feelings and their right to feel that way. For example, “Sounds like you are going through a hard time, and that makes sense given what you’ve already gone through.”


Making discounting statements or ignoring their strong feelings can make the situation worse for the trauma survivor because it reinforces negative belief systems. For example, “That was a long time ago. Let’s move on.”

What if I say something that comes out wrong and what I really mean gets lost?

SCENARIO: A woman is describing a painful traumatic experience involving witnessing killings in her village in her home country. You feel empathy and support for her situation, but what you say is…


You see the discomfort on her face, and realize what you said was just phrased improperly. You say, “I’m sorry. That came out wrong. What I meant to say was, that was a terrible experience, and I’m so glad you were able to find safety.” This response shows the woman that you are human and able to admit when you’ve made a mistake.


“That’s awful. Aren’t you glad you live in Canada now?” This discounts her situation and makes an assumption that things are better now.

What if someone discloses trauma and they want to tell me all about it, but it’s not my role or responsibility to be a counsellor?

SCENARIO: A young woman discloses that she was sexually assaulted a few months ago. She goes on at length about the situation, asks for your advice, and says that she feels she needs to work on the impacts she is only now acknowledging. She says she feels comfortable talking with you.


Acknowledging the feelings and courage it takes to disclose trauma is important, but it is not necessary for you to counsel people if it falls outside the realm of your role. A more appropriate response is to refer them to the service that is right for them and their situation, and that they are willing to use. For example, you could say, “This is a hard time for you, and I thank you for sharing this with me. Sounds like you have a lot to talk about and I’m wondering if counselling is an option for you right now?” It would be important to highlight the trust the client has shown in sharing this information with you, and to encourage them to “trust” you further in making a recommendation for a referral to another counsellor.


Shutting a person down by cutting off the contact: “I’m not a counsellor, so I can’t help you, but here’s the number for some services.” Or conversely, trying to provide counselling that is outside your role: “I’m not a counsellor, but I can try and give you the best advice I can.”

How do I ask men about trauma in a way that may help them feel more comfortable in discussing their feelings and experiences?

SCENARIO: You are speaking with a man in his mid-40s who says his childhood was really hard, and that he lived in fear of his father for most of it. You ask him if his father abused him, and his reply is, “Yeah, he was really mean and he’d let you know with his fists when he was angry. He also knew how to take it to the next level of humiliation in my room at night.” You feel he is referring to sexual abuse.


Acknowledge his reference to sexual abuse and validate the experience. For example, “You described physical abuse by your dad, and I know abuse can often be sexual, too. Is that what you mean by the humiliation in your room?” The man says, “Yeah, he did stuff to me and I hated it, and I never told anyone about it because I was afraid they’d think it was my fault and I was gay.” Responding to this appropriately would allow you to invite the man to acknowledge the harsh judgments as a societal myth. For example, “Abuse is never the fault of the child; you were in a situation where you had no choices. Sexual abuse cannot make you gay because it is used as a weapon, but society sure seems to send us that message. It’s not easy to talk about this stuff. I appreciate your sharing it with me.”


Not acknowledging the sexual abuse reference sends the message that you don’t want to hear about it. For example, “I know a lot of guys who were beat up as kids; good thing you’ve moved on from that now.” This response does not acknowledge the sexual abuse, but does assume he’s over it.

Are there times when I shouldn’t ask about the trauma?

SCENARIO: You are speaking with a woman whose emotions of panic, anxiety and hopelessness are very strong. She seems overwhelmed, distracted, and in need of immediate help. She states that she’s been bombarded with memories and flashbacks recently, has missed work, is crying a lot, and isn’t really feeling she’s in reality. She needs help now.


Acknowledge her feelings and fears and assess her current situation as someone who is in crisis and having difficulty containing her emotions and dealing with daily functioning. This individual is not physically or mentally able to function properly, so asking about the trauma may exacerbate the situation by adding to her inability to cope. Instead, you could ask, “How can I help you now? What needs to happen to help you feel more under control now?” Also, “Let’s take some deep breaths together.” Panic and anxiety can often be reduced by intentional deep breathing.


“Sounds like you are dealing with trauma. Do you have time to talk about the memories and how they are impacting you 117 now?” This response ignores the immediate needs of safety and stabilization this woman needs, and focuses instead on issues that are longer term.

Do I need to get all the details of the trauma in order to understand where the survivor is coming from and for them to heal?

SCENARIO: You are speaking with a veteran who states that the war is still with him in his mind. He feels like he just left Afghanistan yesterday. He wonders if the pain will ever go away.


Acknowledge his statement, but do not ask for specific details or the whole story of the trauma, unless the person indicates that this is an important part of recovery for him. Just asking about the feelings and impacts of the trauma is all that is necessary to encourage healing and recovery. For example, “Seems that an experience like war can really stay with you. How does it impact your life today? What do you notice in yourself as you talk about it right now?” This focuses on the impact of the trauma, which is current.


Focusing on getting the whole story of the trauma, including details of specific incidents, calls for too much information that may not be necessary to recovery. For example, “Can you please start from the beginning and tell me in detail about your experiences that are still painful?” This may actually set the individual back because the memories are still too painful.

What if I become frustrated with people because I sense they are trying to be difficult by withholding information?

SCENARIO: You are speaking with an Aboriginal man in his 50s who suffers from depression. He says very little about his feelings, and does not make eye contact. When you ask him about his depression, he provides little information and seems uncomfortable, like he doesn’t want to be there, even though he came voluntarily. You become frustrated, low on patience and wonder why he can’t just be “normal.”


Ask about his discomfort and what you can do differently to accommodate him so he can benefit from the meeting. Understand what his “normal” way of communicating is and place your work with him in that context.


Being judgmental, and allowing your emotions to interfere with service. For example, “I can’t help you if you don’t give me information.”

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