If there is someone that you know or suspect is a victim of domestic violence or abuse, you might be hesitant to help because you don't know how to go about it. Waiting for the exact words to say could keep you from doing anything at all and missing an opportunity that could change a life.
The world of many domestic abuse victims is lonely, isolated and filled with fear. Sometimes just reaching out and letting them know that you are there for them can provide tremendous relief. Letting them know that you are concerned could open up a needed emotional outlet.
Following are some tips for lending support to a victim of domestic violence. Although we are very much aware that men can be victims of domestic violence too, here we will refer to the victim as "she," because the vast majority of victims are female.
Time to Reach OutIf you decide to reach out to someone you think is being abused, do so when the situation is calm, not during the midst of an argument or fight when emotions are running high. Getting involved when tempers are flaring or a fight is occurring, can put you in danger.
Choose a time when things are quiet, then set aside enough time in case the victim decides to open up and talk. If she decides to vent years of pent-up fear and frustration, you won't want to cut her off because you have another commitment.
Starting the ConversationYou can bring up the subject by saying that you have noticed some changes and you are concerned. Maybe you have seen her wearing clothing to cover up bruises or you've notice that she has suddenly become unusually quiet and withdrawn, both signs of abuse.
Let her know that if she wants to talk, you will keep the conversation in confidence. Don't try to force her to open up, let the conversation go at a pace at which she is comfortable. Take it slow and easy, just let her know that you are available. Just offering a sympathetic ear can be a huge help to her.
Listen Without JudgmentIf the victim does decide to talk, listen to her story without being judgmental, offering advice or suggesting solutions. Chances are if you actively listen, she will tell you exactly what she needs. Just give her opportunities to talk.
You can ask clarifying questions, but mainly just let her vent her feelings and fears. You may be the first person that she has ever talked with about her situation.
Believe the VictimBecause domestic violence is more about control than it is anger, often the victim is the only one who sees that side of the perpetrator. Many times, others are shocked to learn that the person they know could commit violence. Consequently, victims often feel that no one would believe them if they told others about the violence.
Believe the victim's story and let her know that you believe her. For a victim, finally having someone who knows the truth about what is going on behind closed doors can bring a sense of hope and relief.
Offer the victim these assurances:
- I believe you
- This is not your fault
- You don't deserve this.
Validate the Victim's FeelingsFor the victims of domestic violence, it is not unusual for them to have and express conflicting feelings about their partner and their situation. These feelings can range from:
- Guilt and anger
- Hope and despair
- Love and fear
But it is also important that you confirm that violence is not okay, and it isn't normal to live in fear of being physically attacked. Some victims may not realize that their situation is not normal, because they have nothing else to go by and because they have gradually become accustomed to the cycle of violence.
Let her know that violence and abuse are not part of healthy relationships. Without judging, confirm to her that her situation is dangerous and you are concerned for her safety.
Offer Specific HelpHelp her find other support and resources. She may not be able to research support services herself, so look up telephone numbers for her for shelters, social services, attorneys, counselors or support groups as appropriate. If available, offer her brochures or pamphlets about domestic violence.
If you are asked to do something specific and you are willing to do it, then do whatever it is. If you cannot or do not want to do it, tell her up front, but try to find other ways her need can be met. Try to identify her strengths and assets and help her build and expand them, so that she can begin to help herself.
The important thing is to let her know that you are there for her, available at any time. Just let her know how to reach you, if she needs you.
Help Form a Safety PlanHelp the victim create a safety plan which can be put into action if violence occurs again or if she decides to leave the situation. Just the exercise of making a plan can help her visualize what steps she needs to take and prepare her psychologically for doing so.
Because victims who leave their abusive partners are at a 75% greater risk of being killed by their abuser than those who stay, it is extremely important for a victim to have a personalize safety plan before a crisis occurs or before they decide to leave.
Ask her what she would do, where she would go. Ask her if she has thought about what steps she would take if she decides to leave. Help the victim think through each step of the safety plan, weighing the risks and benefits of each option and ways to reduce the risks.
How dangerous is the situation? Take the Danger Assessment Quiz
Things Not to Do or SayAlthough there is no right or wrong way to help a victim of domestic violence, you want to avoid doing anything that will make the situation worse. Here are some "don'ts" the experts suggest that you avoid:
- Avoid bashing the abuser. Focus on the behavior, not the personality.
- Never blame the victim. That's what the abuser does.
- Don't underestimate the potential danger for the victim and yourself.
- Don't promise any help that you can't follow through with.
- Don't give conditional support.
- Don't do anything that might provoke the abuser.
- Don't pressure the victim.
- Don't give up. If she is not willing to open up at first, be patient.
- Don't do anything to make it more difficult for the victim.
Call the PoliceIf you know that violence is actively occurring, call 9-1-1 immediately. If you hear or see physical abuse taking place, call the police. The police are the most effective way to remove the immediate danger to the victim and her children.
There are no situations in which children should be left in a violent situation. Do whatever is necessary to ensure their safety, even if it means going against the wishes of your victim friend or the wishes of the abuser. In actively violent situations, calling child protective services is not the problem, it's part of the solution.
National Domestic Violence Hotline. "How Can I help a Friend or Family Member Who Is Being Abused?." Accessed May 2013.
New Zealand Ministry of Social Development. "What Should I Think About Before I Get Involved?." Family and Community Services. Accessed May 2013.
United Methodis Women. "How to Help a Victim of Domestic Violence: A Toolkit." 20 January 2011.