Safety First: What can you do to help a trauma victim find hope and healing?
Zvi Gluck, CEO of the Amudim crisis support organization, is often the first address for people who are hurting and in pain. No matter what the source of the pain, he says, the first step for a responder is always the same: Validate. “Only by validating someone’s feelings do we give them the ability to heal,” he explains. The natural, often instinctive response of telling the person to get their mind off of it, or to just get over it is not only not helpful, it makes things worse. “Without validation,” he says, “they will lose their trust.”
Therefore, the first step we in the community can take is to acknowledge that there are many victims among us and their trauma is real. The next step is acknowledging that we can all contribute in some way to the creation of an environment where pain is addressed with empathy and compassion.
You may not be a first responder or mental health professional — but you very likely hold a role as a parent, sibling, friend, neighbor, or community member. Along with that role come opportunities and responsibilities, and the chance to effect positive change. We reached out to professionals to hear about those opportunities.
So what can you do to help a trauma victim find hope and healing?
If you are a parent
Responding: Dr. Akiva Perlman
A parent is often the first person to whom a traumatized child turns. Research shows the first person who responds to a victim sharing his or her story is the most important person for that victim — so how you react, what you say, and what you don’t say are key.
The best response is to listen and remain emotionally present. Your goal is to honor your child’s pain and give it credibility. Hear what your child is saying, and treat them as a legitimate victim, not a bystander. Your child should hear from you, “You didn’t do anything wrong, this wasn’t your fault—someone hurt you.”
You want to separate the person from the event, expressing to your child that he or she is beautiful, whole, and something bad happened to them. Don’t try to justify or provide reasons for whatever behavior your child is describing. Your goal in that initial conversation is that your child should walk out thinking, I’m good, and someone else harmed me. Conveying this is the most powerful element of healing from trauma; it can save five years of therapy.
Keep in mind that your child needs your sympathy and understanding. Trauma attacks the core of a person’s existence and sense of self, and victims doubt their own experiences and feelings, they resist and fight it — but until trauma can be accepted and acknowledged, they can never really heal. Victims need to discover their sense of self and internal power; after all, those were taken from them! But doing that requires the painful acknowledgment that something has been taken, that innocence was lost, and that’s very difficult. The traumatized child needs to feel believed, understood, and most of all, felt. They need to feel their parents are in pain with them, because when that happens, they’re no longer alone.
In many if not most cases, it takes children years — sometimes until they reach adulthood — for them to face this and share it with their parents. But no matter what his or her age, your priority is your child and your child’s healing, not justice. (Often it’s too painful for the victims, at any point in their lives, to even think about facing the perpetrator or seeking justice. They just want to overcome the trauma.)
After a disclosure is made to you, the next step is to reach out to a wise, competent rav for guidance — guidance for both your child and for yourself, the parent. When dealing with trauma, you need a community of support, and a rav is a good place to start, followed by any of the myriad organizations that exist for this unfortunate need.
Recovery from trauma is a long and painful road. Rarely does a victim discover immediately which treatment methodology or therapeutic relationship will help them heal. It’s a process, and victims remain in this “state of unknown” while going through the process. They tend to act out their pain in challenging ways — testing, prodding, defying — as they seek to make sense of overwhelming feelings they cannot place or identify.
Parents tend to bear the brunt of this emotional expression as their traumatized child seeks comfort in a fractured world, often through behaviors that are contrary to our way of life. (I’m not even speaking about the shame and communal embarrassment they will likely endure.) It’s common for victims to “blame” their parents more than their perpetrators, because the parents’ duty is to protect, and the child was not protected by them. This is true even for the most solid of parents who are trying their best but had no clue their child was in danger. The situation is extremely challenging, and parents need their own support to help separate between what they should own versus what they should endure.
Throughout the journey — because healing is a journey — keep your victimized child at the forefront. Sympathize and understand and create additional room in your heart to hold and embrace your precious and fragile child, who like all of our children, deserves a warm home, a safe space, and the love of his parents to support him through thick and thin.
Akiva Perlman, PhD, is a professor at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work in New York, New York, and the clinical director of ODA’s Wellness Institute in Brooklyn, New York. He maintains a small practice in Fresh Meadows, New York, and speaks internationally about abuse, addiction, and trauma.
If you are a concerned neighbor or friend
Responding: Dr. Shana Frydman
When something doesn’t feel right in your interactions with a friend – for example, your friend seems more withdrawn, anxious or nervous, sad or depressed; has a hard time sleeping or begins to complain about new stomachaches or headaches; or seems scared of a particular person — it’s healthy to be concerned. There is no need to jump to conclusions and certainly no reason to panic, but as a friend who cares you can show healthy curiosity and concern.
For example, you can ask open-ended questions like: “I noticed that you’ve seemed sad and nervous lately, and I was wondering if everything is okay.” Or you can say something like, “Just checking in — you seemed upset, and I want you to know that I’m here for you.”
If your friend shares with you that they experienced something difficult, such as being abused, remember that your role is not to judge. Your role isn’t to solve this, either. As a friend, your job is to offer support and help.
The most important thing you can do is listen and believe your friend. Refrain from asking lots of questions. You can say “I believe you; you did nothing to make this happen” or “I am here for you.” You can validate what your friend is feeling— “It sounds like keeping this inside has been really painful,” if that’s what’s coming across.
How your friend moves forward isn’t a decision you can or should be making on their behalf. Your friend needs to choose. You can help them by connecting them to a licensed mental health professional or agency. If they find your presence supportive, you can even be there when they make the initial call.
You yourself may benefit from some guidance to help you be the best support you can be. You can contact an agency and they’ll guide you on how to speak to and support your friend.
For teens, the most supportive thing one can do for a friend is to connect him/her to a professional or to a trusted safe adult. Although your friend may want you to keep their experience secret, you should know that abuse thrives in secrecy. It is important for them to find someone who can help them. If your friend is unsafe and being hurt, please encourage them to get help.
In some cases, you may need to reach out to that adult or professional for help. We want to respect our friends’ privacy. We also want to keep them safe. If you’re concerned about your friend’s safety, it’s okay to reach out to someone you feel can be helpful. When you reach out for help you are doing it to support them, not to cause any further pain. Because that’s what friends are for.
Dr. Shana Frydman is executive director of Shalom Task Force, an organization that works to promote healthy and safe relationships and families within the Jewish community by offering culturally sensitive services and programming.
If you are a mental health professional
Responding: Sara Eisenmann
Before we deal with the person in front of us, we must deal with the person inside of us. Trauma touches something primal in us, and as mental health professionals it is our obligation, both to ourselves and our clients, to be in touch with that raw pain and to be adequately prepared for receiving it with the honor it deserves.
As a practitioner, we must be very honest about our capacity — both personal and professional — to deal with trauma. We must have specific training in trauma work to be effective and certainly not to do any harm. And mostly, we must have the humility to understand that we may know a lot about trauma, but that only our client fully knows about her trauma.
Trauma is the experience of “too much, too fast,” such that when the event is happening it is too much for the person to process. The system is flooded with no release valve, trapping the overwhelming feelings inside. Should a victim be so fortunate as to have someone there to help them process what just happened and how they feel about it, one can recover and even emerge whole from a traumatic experience. But if not, the trauma gets stuck in the body and every trigger sends the body in a panic back to fight/flight/freeze mode, as though the trauma were reoccurring.
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, the leading authority on trauma, says it this way: “Trauma is not the story of something that happened back then. It’s the current imprint of that pain, horror, and fear living inside people.” Almost anything can send the person back to that place of trauma, making life and relationships exceedingly difficult to navigate.
We need to internalize this in a very deep way.
As Dr. Akiva Perlman explains it, this isn’t about something horrible that happened to someone in the past. This is about something that shaped how the person developed from that point forward. It is with them today in how they live, in how they relate, in how they show up in our office. It’s about the core beliefs they developed about themselves.
So the first, last, and middle thing a therapist must do is to create safety. In so many ways. We must believe. We must not judge. We must honor the story and hold space for it. As much as every part of us may want to run and scream from it and from the belief that we humans can hurt each other in these ways, we must understand and receive the full magnitude and horror of what the person in front of us has endured. Woe to the healer who minimizes or deflects the pain because they have not made themselves a proper receptacle for fully accepting the victim’s pain.
According to Dr. van der Kolk, “Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health.” Our first job as mental health providers is to create that container of safety and a sacred space. To give the message that this space can hold all the feelings that are jumbled inside of you in a safe way. We must let the client know that while the feelings inside of them may be overwhelming, we can stand alongside them and hold those feelings without being overwhelmed until eventually, with Hashem’s help, they learn how to hold those feelings themselves with love and compassion.
If trauma is “too much, too fast,” our job is to slow things down. We teach, by example, the process of “being” with feelings. Our job as healers is to help the client understand that trauma gets stuck in the body and to create the safety and space needed to heal by releasing and processing that trauma through the body, often through somatic healing.
Our “being” provides healing. Our willingness to sit with the other as the feelings go through them in a safe setting provides healing. Our belief in the story and in the pain provides healing. Our willingness to sit with the brokenness, as we hope for the wholeness, provides healing. Our stillness and quiet, as we honor the story, provide healing. Peter Levine, father of somatic healing, defined trauma as “what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.” Our job is to become that empathetic witness.
As healers, our primary role is to restore the trust that has been trampled by betrayal at the very core of the client’s self. In the most professional manner, we must convey the deep message of “It’s okay, mamaleh. I’m here with you. Hashem is with you. You’re okay.”
Sara Eisemann, LMSW, ACSW, is a licensed therapist with extensive trauma training, a certified Directed Dating coach, and certified Core Mentor.
If you are a community member
Responding: Mrs. Debbie Fox
If you’re not connected to the victims, if you don’t know any of them personally (or you don’t know you know any of them personally), how do you “show support”?
I just got off a two-hour Zoom session with survivors and hope that I have a better understanding of that which is important to them based on their personal experiences. For survivors, there is no greater value than knowing that people honor and believe their stories and experiences. So, as community members, how do we show support and respond to a crisis of this magnitude? We can acknowledge the beis din’s findings, feel the horror of the events and the pain of the victims.
As a community, we need to be very clear about where the problem lies, not blaming the victims but putting the responsibility on the perpetrators. Anyone who’s gone through trauma has been re-victimized many times. It’s unfortunately all too common that children come forward to their parents — but aren’t believed. Then they whisper their stories to their teachers or other adults — but they aren’t heard. These traumatized victims live in a world where no one believed them, and it takes so much courage to share their story even today as adults.
Research shows there’s a mere one-percent lie rate when it comes to accusations of abuse — one percent! — but a survivor’s automatic fear is activated when something like this goes public. “No one will believe us, even with the proclamation of the beis din over our testimony.” When people — even you, in a different community or even country — trust the beis din and believe the victims, it is incredibly comforting to victims all over. Being believed brings hope and healing.
I’ve spoken to many families who came forward about a neighbor, teacher, or community leader who was inappropriate, and most painful for them is the way the community treated them and isolated them after they shared their story, when they tried to get help and healing for their child. So many of these families have painfully told me, “I hope I can heal from the trauma of what happened to me, but I’m afraid I can never heal from the trauma of my community’s re-victimization of me and my family.”
As a community, there is more we can do. Victims feel validated when they know that our community is being proactive. That, for example, families are having preventive discussions with their children about personal safety. When every family takes appropriate action for the age and stage of their children, victims feel a sense of healing; they feel the future will be better for others. When we as a community react to the exposure of a perpetrator by focusing on prevention and taking a proactive approach — when schools and shuls work to create an environment where there is no tolerance for a perpetrator, when rabbanim get together to discuss how the community handles allegations, when local organizations bring in speakers to discuss preventative measures at home — we’re working to ensure the safety of our children, and victims feel supported and believed.
That’s what the victims want at this point: to know that we respect their stories, whether we know them personally or not. It’s important that they know we honor their pain, and that we as a community are taking steps to ensure no one else has to go through this — because, unfortunately, anyone can.
Debbie Fox is the founder and executive director of the Magen Yeladim Child Safety Institute in Los Angeles, California.
If you are in a position of communal authority
Responding: Dr. Yaakov Freedman
Baruch Hashem, our leadership is infinitely more aware of the public health challenges facing Am Yisrael than it was even a decade ago. There was a time when Rabbi Avraham J. Twerski needed a security detail for raising the topic of domestic violence in the frum community. Now, years later, teachers in seminaries address this issue as an important part of their curriculum for young women. Prominent rabbanim give shiurim alongside psychiatrists affiliated with fantastic mental health organizations like Relief Resources, Amudim, MASK and others.
And yet there is much to be done. I often say that you cannot have a solution unless you have a problem and you cannot have a problem unless you discuss the facts. Tragically, the facts are that we have a significant problem with abuse in our community. The length of one’s beard or style of their sheitel does not prevent one from being a perpetrator and the length of a child’s peyos or their skirt does not protect them from being a victim. While our community does so many things right, our leadership must send a clear message: Abuse is absolutely unacceptable.
Just as I encourage each of my fellow psychiatrists and therapists to build a connection with a posek experienced in mental health, I beg our rabbanim to develop relationships with trained professionals to assist them in creating safer kehillos. There should be a network of trusted, licensed professionals to which our leadership feels comfortable referring their constituents for evidence-based, subsidized psychiatric treatment.
Furthermore, community leadership should sponsor and participate in mandatory educational events and facilitate collaboration between professionals and yeshivos, seminaries, and chadarim. Connections must be built with governmental agencies such as the police and the welfare department to ensure that dangerous perpetrators are handled in a safe and effective manner. And most of all, work should be done to decrease the stigma of being abused.
Traumatized individuals are tremendously at risk for hospitalizations, drug use, suicide, and other tragic outcomes. It can be literally lifesaving to create an atmosphere of trust and respect so victims of abuse can seek assistance. A safe environment, where people can freely express their concerns, can also serve to prevent further cases of abuse.
Jacob L. Freedman is a psychiatrist, business consultant, and author based in Israel. When he’s not busy with his patients, Dr. Freedman can be found learning Torah in the Old City or hiking the hills around Jerusalem.
Ditch the Therapy Dangers
Sarah Rivkah Kohn
Licensed therapists are often unsung heroes who do lifesaving work with devotion and deep caring. But as with any service provider, it’s up to the client to make sure they’re using a truly qualified therapist.
Here are some ways to weed out practitioners you may want to avoid:
Referred by Whom?
Get your referral from a reputable source such as an agency that specializes in mental health, a rav who knows you and the field, or an excellent clinician who may be able to refer a colleague. That referral you got from your cousin may be a great one, but run it by someone who does many referrals. They can tell you if there have been any red flags in the past that your cousin may not know about from one experience.
Licensed As What?
A licensed electrician may not practice therapy. Neither may many other people who carry a variety of licenses. Ask the question: What are you licensed as? Then look it up. For the fields of social work, mental health counseling, or marriage and family therapy, you want to have an L before the licensure. That tells you the clinician passed the licensing exam.
When you’re seeing a PhD, you want it to be in clinical psychology, psychology, or psychiatry. A doctor of philosophy also has a PhD but should not be practicing therapy.
Look up the licensing. It’s all public information. You will see the year the license was given. If you can’t find it, it’s possible the clinician is practicing under their legal name (e.g., Joseph instead of Yossi as you know him on the street) or it could be a woman has her license under her maiden name. All this is easy enough to clear up really quickly.
The Timing Is Off
When sessions run erratically — sometimes they’re 30 minutes, sometimes two hours — that’s a red flag right there. Therapy sessions typically run 45–60 minutes for individual therapy and 60–90 minutes for couples or family therapy to give everyone a chance to talk. Some working with very young children will run 30-minute sessions if they feel that’s all the child can do.
Whatever the number is, for the most part that’s where it should stay. I’m not talking about the one-time crisis where a double session is planned for and needed. I’m talking about a session that doesn’t end when it should end. I’m talking about erratic timings.
This is often very appealing to people in a vulnerable state. It emits the I-will-be-here-for-you-as-long-as-you-need vibe. Good therapy, however, is built around boundaries. Healthy boundaries include a safe and consistent start and end time. If a therapist is not sticking to that core ethical value, I’d wonder and worry what other ethics are off.
Halachah Comes First
Torah is true no matter the career choice. Firstly, know that some rabbanim feel that one shouldn’t see a clinician of the opposite gender at all. If, for whatever reason, you feel that you must nevertheless see a therapist of the opposite gender, ask how hilchos yichud are observed in their setting. Some use cameras pointed just at the clinician. Some have waiting rooms, windows facing outward, other shared offices — there are many options.
Obviously, the answer itself is important, but what’s more important is the immediate response and the tone in which it’s delivered. Is it one of genuine surprise, as though they’ve never thought of this before? Is it one of frustration and defensiveness? Or is it an open and confident, “Sure, here’s how I do it”? Listen carefully. Ask a sh’eilah if need be. But if you sense any frustration with you for asking the question, run the other way.
Boundaries in the frum community are tough to keep. A therapist can take on an adult client and three sessions in, her brother gets engaged to the client’s sister — giving her a front-row seat to the family dynamics she’s heard all about in session. Or what about the therapist who realizes his client sits on the board of the school his son is trying to get into.
Our world is so small. That’s why it’s imperative that boundaries be firm and unmovable. No, a client can’t move into the therapist’s home. Not even for a night. (Yes, a therapist can take in a child for foster care so long as that’s not her client.) No, you can’t tell the concerned relative that you’re seeing the client and that she is just fine. No, you can’t meet your client in your dining room and have your married daughter pop in for a minute.
A breach in boundaries needs to be taken very seriously.
Checks and Balances
Supervision is not superfluous. By law, once clinicians pass certain exams, they often don’t have to have supervision to practice. That’s by law. By good ethics they should have it anyway.
Referral agencies can and should know who the primary supervisor of a clinician is. I learn a lot about the style of a clinician based on who they take as a primary supervisor. I learn even more when someone tells me they don’t have one. “I’m past it” scares me. There need to be checks and balances in this field. You don’t just get to use your gut.
“I learned nothing in school, but I needed the paper.” “I was always good at this stuff — I’m a natural.” “That therapist is garbage… honestly most are.” “I can work with any age, any type of case, and help everyone.”
All these lines point to the same flaws: an inability to have insight and learn. Certainly a lack of humility. If a therapist displays these, I wonder if they have the ability to listen to another and if they have the ability to take critique and learn how to actually help the client.
Beware the Guarantee
Providing a cure-all or guaranteeing that after a fixed number of sessions you can certainly be “cured” is a guarantee of one thing: failure. Humans are more nuanced and layered than an onion is. There is no way to tell someone “I can cure your anxiety in four or ten sessions” when you haven’t a clue as to what is causing the anxiety or if they’re sharing only what they know as the current trigger.
A cure-all attitude often points to an inability to focus on what is right for the client, focusing instead on what is right for the portfolio. Clients are often told that they’re done, and when the pain manifests itself again, there can be so much shame as though they “failed” the cure-all method.
Free is Free
Clients needs to pay for therapy, whether out of pocket or via insurance, and clinicians need to receive compensation for every session. It’s part of good ethics. It’s also part of good ethics for every clinician to have something they do or someone they see, pro bono. If you are a pro bono client, there should be an arrangement that makes it abundantly clear that there are no strings attached.
If the therapy is not paid for with money, be sure it’s not paid for with anything else. You cannot barter a service and expect to still maintain healthy boundaries.
Mrs. Sarah Rivkah Kohn is the founder and director of Links and Shloime’s Club.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 893)
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