10 ways to help survivors of domestic violence
The effects of domestic violence reach far beyond the immediate victim.
“Every member of our community is impacted in some way,” says Abi McLane, assistant director of the Crystal Judson Family Justice Center in Tacoma.
Friends, coworkers and family members who struggle to understand and support domestic violence survivors need help, too. That’s why, in recognition of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the Judson Center has produced a campaign called “Ten Ways” that provides guidance for those trying to help.
Research shows that strong support systems are a significant factor in helping domestic violence survivors succeed. The Ten Ways are designed to be easy and manageable for anyone, regardless of financial means or education.
Even if you don’t currently know someone dealing with domestic violence, you never know when someone will confide in you, says McLane. That’s why it’s important for everyone to know and understand.
1. Reassure them that the abuse is not their fault
The abuse dynamic is often based on the survivor’s belief that they somehow cause the abuser to lash out. Even though it may seem obvious to you, it’s important to remind them that’s not true.
“The abuser is responsible for their behavior and their choices,” McLane says.
2. Encourage them to speak with a professional about safety planning
“If they felt safe enough to talk to you, help them take the next step to talk to a professional,” McLane says.
Safety plans can be made for every situation, whether they stay or leave their abuser.
3. Don’t assume they will leave
“This is hands down the hardest one,” McLane says.
If you insist they leave their abuser, that can isolate them from the help and support they need if they aren’t ready to go.
“It’s hard because you love them and you want what’s best for them,” McLane says. “But they might not leave and you cannot tell them they have to.”
4. Listen to what they are saying
Everyone knows something about abuse, even if it’s just from reading posts like this. But don’t assume you understand what is happening.
“It’s really important to authentically listen,” McLane says. “I’ve been in this field for 10 years and I’ve never heard the same story twice.”
Really listen to what is happening and what their concerns are.
5. Let them make their own decisions
Because so much of abuse is about controlling the victim, “letting them make their own decisions is huge in helping them feel like they can move forward,” McLane says.
Even small decisions can be very empowering. Resist the urge to step in and “fix” things. Instead ask them what they need and what their priorities are. You won’t always understand their decisions, but you can help them make choices in a safe way.
6. Provide them with a safe time and space to be heard
You never know when someone will get the courage to confide in you about their abusive relationship. It can be in the middle of a barbecue or on the sidelines of a kids’ soccer game.
If you can, put a pause on whatever is going on so you can really focus on them, McLane says. If they disclose at a time and place when it’s impossible to give them your full attention, intentionally create another time when you can really talk.
7. Don’t bad-mouth the abuser to them, in public or online
“This is a really hard one for most people because they’re furious for their friends and family members,” McLane says.
You will also likely feel a sense of betrayal because you probably have a relationship with the abuser as well as the victim. But if you badmouth the abuser and they end up staying together or getting back together, it further isolates the survivor, McLane says.
“It also puts the survivor in the weird space where they feel like they have to defend (the abuser),” she says.
Abusers are often very image conscious. If they start feeling that image being damaged, “what can happen is they elevate in their violence toward the victim,” McLane says.
8. Believe them
“It sounds so simple,” McLane says. “But oftentimes people are baffled by what they are hearing.”
If your immediate response is disbelief, try not to express it.
“Inadvertently people say things like, ‘I don’t believe it,’” McLane says. “Often [survivors] have been told ‘No one will believe you,’ and that reaction reinforces it.”
Instead make sure you tell them, “I hear what you’re saying and I believe what you’re saying.”
9. Ask them what type of support would be helpful
“We had a woman who had more children than a five-passenger car could carry,” McLane recalls. “She was totally isolated by the number of children she had.”
Finding her a van that would allow her to get all her kids somewhere by herself was a need no one would have recognized if she hadn’t asked.
Maybe they need someone to walk their dog or watch their kids while they visit a counselor or just have time alone to think. Whatever it is, you won’t know until you ask.
10. Know that you don’t need to be in this alone
“People often feel like they don’t know what they can do,” McLane says.
That’s why it’s important to realize there is trained, professional help available.
“Don’t overcommit and then burn out,” McLane advises. “Do it in a way that is safe for you emotionally and physically.”
Just as there is counseling and support available for survivors, there are programs available for those who are supporting survivors.
Where to call for help
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, there are several agencies you can call for help:
Crystal Judson Family Justice Center Helpline
(8:30am to 4:20pm Monday-Friday)
Counseling from MultiCare Behavioral Health Domestic Violence Services
Our staff offers direction, hope and solution-based therapy within a safe and confidential environment, plus a weekly support group.
YWCA Domestic Violence Helpline
About The Author
Cheryl Reid-Simons is a freelance writer and serial community volunteer. In her spare time, she drives a private activities shuttle for her twin sons, healthy graduates of the Tacoma General NICU and interim care nursery. More stories by this author