Domestic violence is a major problem in the U.S. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the U.S. That’s more than 10 million women and men per year!
If you suspect someone you know may be a victim of domestic abuse, there are ways you can help. Don’t let fear of saying the wrong thing keep you from reaching out to them and offering your support.
Not sure how to go about it? Here are some steps that might help:
- Know the warning signs
Domestic abuse can be hard to detect because victims rarely open up about it. They might feel shame, fear, worthlessness, or a number of other feelings, which make it hard for them to seek help.
However, there are several physical, emotional, and behavioral signs that could indicate domestic abuse:
- Physical signs include bruises, black eyes, busted lips, and sprained wrists.
- Emotional signs include low self-esteem, fear, excessive apologies, anxiety, and substance abuse
- Behavioral signs include a withdrawn or distant demeanor, frequent absences or late arrivals to meetings, isolation from friends and family, and extreme privacy.
If you notice any of the above (or similar) signs in a friend, family member, or acquaintance, it’s best to check in on them by moving to the next step.
- Start a conversation
When you suspect someone is a victim of domestic abuse, start by telling them you are concerned or worried about them, and tell them why. Don’t force them to open up to you, but make sure they know you are there for them. Tell them that you respect their privacy and will keep anything they disclose confidential.
It can take a lot of courage for a victim of domestic abuse to open up. Why? Domestic abuse often occurs because the perpetrator is trying to exert control. As a result, the victim may feel powerless to change the situation. So be patient and show that you are there to support them, no matter what.
- Listen without judgment
If the domestic abuse victim opens up to you, listen. Try not to judge, offer advice, or propose solutions at first. Just listen so that they have the opportunity to express themselves.
Listening alone can be extremely helpful because it helps them vent their feelings, frustrations, and fears. Be prepared to listen for a long time as you may be the first person they have opened up to in years.
You can ask clarifying questions to keep the conversation going, but you mainly want to let the other person do the talking.
- Validate their feelings
As the domestic abuse victim opens up to you, validate their feelings. Let them know their feelings are understandable given the circumstances.
At the same time, be clear with them that violence is never okay, nor is living in fear of it. It’s not part of a healthy relationship. Furthermore, domestic abuse is never the victim’s fault and nobody ever has the right to hurt them for any reason.
Above all, believe the victim and let them know that you do. Too often the perpetrator of domestic abuse gets away with their crime because outsiders don’t believe the victim or don’t believe the perpetrator would commit such evil.
- Help them create a safety plan
Next, help the victim create a safety plan for what they will do the next time they are in a dangerous situation or need to escape their abuser. This helps the victim prepare for what to do mentally.
A domestic abuse safety plan should include a safe place to go in an emergency, a prepared excuse to leave, a list of emergency contacts, a code word to alert family and friends you are in danger, and an escape bag with cash, keys, extra clothes, toiletries, and important documents such as your social security card and passport.
By having all of the above, the victim will be much more prepared to escape a violent situation safely.
- Point them toward professional help
Of course, the victim may need more help than you can provide. So you should also point them in the direction of professional help. For example, you can give them the contact information for national domestic abuse hotlines such as the following:
National Domestic Violence Hotline
1.800.799.7233 | www.ndvh.org
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network Sexual Assault Hotline
1.800.656.4673 | www.rainn.org
National Child Abuse Hotline
1.800.422.4453 | www.childhelp.org
National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline
1.866.331.9474 | www.loveisrespect.org
If you are ever aware of domestic abuse actively happening, don’t hesitate to call 911. The police will be most effective at putting an immediate stop to the violence. Be especially responsive if any children are involved.
Some things not to do
Now that you know what to do to help a victim of domestic violence, here are some things not to do:
Don’t criticize or provoke the abuser, blame the victim, underestimate danger to the victim (or yourself), promise help that you can’t provide, give conditional support, pressure the victim, give up on helping them, or do anything that would make the situation worse.
Also, if you are ever falsely accused of domestic violence yourself, be sure to consult a criminal defense lawyer. They can help you navigate the legal landscape in this sensitive situation.
Overall, the best thing you can do to help victims of domestic abuse is be a reliable support and do what’s best for their safety and health. By keeping those goals in mind, it will be easier to know what to do and say.