If you know or suspect that someone is a victim of domestic violence, you might feel clueless about the best way to help. Don’t let fear of saying the wrong thing prevent you from reaching out. Waiting for the perfect words could keep you from seizing the opportunity to change a life.
The world for many domestic abuse victims can be lonely, isolated, and filled with fear. Sometimes reaching out and letting them know that you are there for them can provide tremendous relief. Use the tips that follow to help you support someone in this vulnerable situation.
Make Time for the Domestic Violence Victim
If you decide to reach out to an abuse victim, do so during a time of calm. Getting involved when tempers are flaring can put you in danger. Also, make sure to set aside plenty of time in case the victim decides to open up. If the person decides to disclose years of pent-up fear and frustration, you will not want to end the conversation because you have another commitment.
Starting the Conversation
You can bring up the subject of domestic violence by saying that you have noticed some changes that concern you. Maybe you’ve seen the person wearing clothing to cover up bruises or noticed that the person has suddenly become unusually quiet and withdrawn. Both can be signs of abuse.
Let the person know that you will keep any information disclosed quiet. Do not try to force the person to open up; let the conversation unfold at a comfortable pace. Take it slow and easy. Just let the person know that you are available and offering a sympathetic ear.
Listen Without Judgment
If the person does decide to talk, listen to the story without being judgmental, offering advice, or suggesting solutions. Chances are if you actively listen, the person will tell you exactly what they need. Just give the person the full opportunity to talk.
You can ask clarifying questions, but mainly just let the person vent their feelings and fears. You may be the first person in which the victim has confided.
Believe the Victim
Because domestic violence is more about control than anger, often the victim is the only one who sees the dark side of the perpetrator. Many times, others are shocked to learn that a person they know could commit violence. Consequently, victims often feel that no one would believe them if they told people about the violence. Believe the victim’s story and say so. For a victim, finally having someone who knows the truth about their struggles 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 Feelings
It’s not unusual for victims to express conflicting feelings about their partner and their situation. These feelings can range from:
- Guilt and anger
- Hope and despair
- Love and fear
If you want to help, it is important that you validate their feelings by letting them know that having these conflicting thoughts is normal. 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 abnormal because they have no other models for relationships and have gradually become accustomed to the cycle of violence. Tell the victim that violence and abuse aren’t part of healthy relationships. Without judging, confirm to them that their situation is dangerous, and you are concerned for their safety.
Offer Specific Help
Help the victim find support and resources. Look up telephone numbers for shelters, social services, attorneys, counselors, or support groups. If available, offer brochures or pamphlets about domestic violence.
If the victim asks you to do something specific and you are willing to do it, don’t hesitate to help. If you are unable to, try to find other ways their needs can be met. Identify their strengths and assets, and help them build and expand upon them, so they find the motivation to help themselves.
The important thing is to let them know that you are there for them, available at any time. Just let them know how to reach you if they need you.
Help Form a Safety Plan
Help the victim create a safety plan that can be put into action if violence occurs again or if they decide to leave the situation. Just the exercise of making a plan can help them visualize which steps they need to take and prepare psychologically to do so.
Because victims who leave their abusive partners are at a 75 percent greater risk of being killed by their abuser than those who stay, it is extremely important for a victim to have a personalized safety plan before a crisis occurs or before they decide to leave.
Ask them what they would do, where they would go. Ask her if they have thought about the steps to take if they decide 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? Read about signs which may indicate that the situation has escalated or may become lethal.
What Not to Do or Say
Although 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 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 they are not willing to open up at first, be patient.
- Don’t do anything to make it more difficult for the victim.
Call the Police
If 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 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.