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How To Do A Mini Debrief With Traumatized Friends

When friends ring up, crying, traumatized, or very angry about a situation, do you know how to best respond? I hear from many people that they want to have a structure around how to help their traumatized friends: they want to know what to do and how to do it.

Using the framework of a Critical Incident Stress Debrief, I have prepared a simple framework of response to help you help your traumatized friends. Finding out that your child has been sexually abused is a critical incident in a person’s life, experiencing or witnessing domestic violence is a critical incident; viewing starving children on T.V can be a critical incident.

The next time a friend is traumatized over anything, this is what you can do to immediately help them to cope with their thoughts and feelings about the critical event:


Ask your friend to describe what happened just before, during, and after the critical incident. Ask open-ended questions that help them explore the facts, thoughts, and sensory experience related to the event. Examples of questions are:
  • So, what happened next?

  • What were you thinking at that time?

  • What did that look like?


This is usually the hardest and the most emotional point of coping with our friend's emotions around a critical incident. In “A” you focus on the story, here you focus on your friend’s feelings. The focus is on your friend and their inner reaction to the situation. For some people it is helpful to avoid asking directly about feelings but rather to ask:
  • What was the hardest part of all this for you?

  • What kind of reactions or feelings were you experiencing then?

Do not leave this step until your friend has expressed all of their emotion. This may take 10 minutes or two hours. In their emotional state, things may not make sense to you. That is okay. This is not about you, it’s about helping your friend get rid of a build up of emotion.


This is your opportunity to help your friend understand that the symptoms they are experiencing are common or typical reactions to traumatic events. They are having a normal reaction to an abnormal event. If you have some knowledge of the human body and psychology, you can explain to your friend why they are experiencing some of these symptoms (beating heart, cold sweats, persistent thoughts about the event, cannot sleep, etc). Look up the internet while your friend is on the phone and tell them what you find about common reactions to critical incidents, help them to identify the ones they are experiencing, and normalize this experience for them. Help your friend anticipate triggers they might experience in the future when they think about the critical incident or visit the place where it happened.


Help your friend to create a coping plan. Explore further how they are doing now. If talking has helped perhaps ring a friend could go onto a coping plan. Some people like to listen to music to calm them, some like physical exercise. It is whatever helps your friend to cope with the horrible wash of feelings and thoughts that come over people after a critical incident.

Suggest to your friend that they talk to a professional. Find a list of people that they can go to. Help them to make the call but do not do it for them.


Before you leave your friend, set up another time to talk about what has happened. It’s like booking an appointment. Before this appointment time though, check in on your friend. Unexpected contact will help your friend to know they are not alone and that they can rely on your help. Most importantly, keep the booked time and go through the above steps again if your friend is up to it. If not, just checking in on “C” and “D” will be helpful.

After talking with traumatized people, you may feel traumatized yourself. It is very important that you are also able to debrief with someone else. There are professionals around who are trained in Critical Incident Stress Debriefing or you may be able to go to a friend who has knowledge of the above simple debriefing steps. In fact, why not have a coffee morning with a group of friends and all practice the above five critical incident stress debriefing steps. If all of your supports have knowledge about how to help, you’ll all be in very good company.

I hope this is helpful and I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether you think this would work with your friends. I would also like to hear how it goes when you use it in a real situation.

Photo (broken mirror 3) courtesy of jfg at stock.xchng

1 Response to "How To Do A Mini Debrief With Traumatized Friends"

emmie johnson said...

An amazing and really helpful post. Good job buddy.
Also, peep into my blog on friendship greeting cards for some beautiful e-greeting cards and friendly tips.

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