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How to Support Survivors of Abuse

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A Note from the Editor

Domestic violence is always a problem in all societies throughout the world. In normal times, one in five women in relationships report being physically or domestically abused in the prior year. Experts predicted that the stay-at-home restrictions and stress caused by the coronavirus pandemic would worsen the problem. Now with the data coming in from countries in more advanced stages of the pandemic, sadly there is evidence to bear this out. In early April, the French police reported a nationwide spike of about 30 percent in domestic violence.

This guest post on how to support survivors of abuse was submitted before the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States. However, it could not be more timely than this very moment when reports of abuse are on the rise here as well.

Jay Boll
Editor in Chief

We know that recovery from abuse is not linear, nor simple. The journey to healing is complicated, with many twists and turns in the road.

With that being said, the journey to recovery is not easy for those supporting survivors either, as supporters often find themselves feeling overwhelmed, out of their depth, and unsure what to do. It is also essential that you take care of your mental health when supporting someone.

Here are 8 steps to being the best supporter you can be:

  1. Listen

It takes enormous trust and courage for survivors to open up about what they have been through and how they are feeling. Should you ever have the privilege of having a survivor feel able to talk to you, it is incredibly important that you listen without interruption or judgment. Try not to feel intimidated or hold back from having an active conversation. Survivors will not be expecting you to fix or solve anything. They simply want to be heard. They have chosen you because of who you are, and because of the relationship you share. Do not be afraid to be yourself. The last thing survivors want is for your relationship to change as a result of their disclosure, so do listen, but also remain your authentic self.

  1. Validate

Hear and acknowledge what they are going through. Make it clear to survivors that you are paying attention. Reflect back what they are saying in your own words, as you understand it. Acknowledge that you hear what they are saying and that you are doing your utmost to understand what they are saying.

  1. Empathize

Empathy involves trying to see the world from other people’s perspectives to gain a better understanding of how they are feeling. Try to understand their history and how this has shaped them, and why this may be impacting the way they are feeling now. Ask open-ended questions, to demonstrate that you are truly open to hearing whatever they feel able to share, and then give them the space to do so. Normalize the way that they are feeling in light of the abuse they have survived. What they are feeling/thinking/behaving is expected and okay given the trauma that they have survived.

  1. Believe

Believe them. No matter how hard this is for you to do. Even if the truth is so painful that you don’t want to believe it. They didn’t want or ask to be abused. For survivors, one of the biggest barriers to disclosure is the fear of not being believed. “I believe you” is one of the most important phrases a survivor can hear. Tell the survivor that you believe him or her. Survivors may need reassurance, and you may need to tell them a number of times and on different occasions that you believe them, though the power of reiterating this message cannot be underestimated.

  1. Empower

Respect survivors’ decisions, even the “bad” ones. You may worry about survivors’ chosen method of coping and may fear that this is harmful to them. However, in the wake of the abuse that they have survived, the thing that they are doing may well be the thing that is saving them. Try not to judge. You may have strong opinions about their need to access support or to report what happened to the police. However, if the survivors are not ready to do this, then their decision must be respected. It is essential that survivors of abuse feel in control. Respect their decisions, but still empower them at the same time. Let them know that they have options and that they are allowed to change their minds. Tell them that you believe in them and that they can and will get through this. See the strength in them that they may not yet see themselves.

  1. Be patient

It may take survivors a long time to feel able to be honest with you about how they are feeling. They may struggle to find the words or to voice them. It may take them time to come to decisions, even decisions that may to you appear small or insignificant. Try to be patient and give survivors the time and the space that they need. Respecting this will reassure them that you care, that you want the best for them, and that you aren’t going anywhere. It demonstrates that you have only their best interests at heart.

  1. Ask how you can help

There are likely to be times that you feel out of your depth and unsure what to do. You may not know what to say or to suggest. Survivors may suffer a panic attack or a flashback, and you may feel overwhelmed and stressed. Instead of panicking and acting out of desperation, take a moment to simply ask – What can you do to be there for them? Ask survivors what they need, and what might help. Do not take it personally if they need time or space, or if they communicate to you that something that you are doing is not helpful. What matters is that you care enough to ask, because you want to get it right. Survivors are the expert of their own experience, and they may well know what they need and what may help but not feel able to communicate this to you. They may worry about the impact that this will have on you, and may be worried about causing you upset or offense. Asking demonstrates that you will not be distressed by what they say, and you are taking responsibility for your emotions regardless of their response. You simply want to do your best to help.

  1. Take time for yourself

Supporting survivors can be very emotionally draining, particularly because you care so much and want so desperately to take their pain away and to make things better. This secondary trauma of witnessing their pain can be devastating. On top of which, there are likely to be times that you do get things wrong. Survivors of abuse can be triggered by things that even they don’t expect, and so it is likely that there will be times that you inadvertently trigger or upset them. This can be heart-breaking for you when you know that your intentions are good, and you are doing your absolute best to help. The survivors’ behavior may sometimes be erratic.  They may push you away, not want to leave the house, cry constantly, have anger outbursts, shut you out emotionally, have mood swings. Try not to take this personally, though do allow yourself the time to be by yourself and take care of yourself and your emotions when you need to. You cannot support someone fully if you are feeling overwhelmed or impacted. Taking the time to ground yourself will aid both of you.


About the Author: PMAC trainer Hayley Broughton-McKinna, a UK psychologist who has worked as a manager for UK charity NAPAC and currently works in law enforcement, explores how to support the mental health of survivors of abuse.

The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.

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