Once you have the information and resources to recognize domestic violence and sexual assault, you can help someone get the support they need and deserve, and help to prevent these crimes in the future. You have the power to help survivors recognize, confront, and heal from abuse.
HOW TO HELP
How to Help Survivors
In addition to the information below, many National Helplines offer free, confidential services to those who have experienced domestic and sexual violence.
Are you worried about yourself or someone you know?
The following are some signs that might alert you that someone you know may be affected by domestic violence:
- They may have bruises or injuries or have frequent “accidents” for which they give vague explanations. These “accidents” sometimes cause them to miss work.
- Their partner controls all aspects of their life – finances, friends, social life, what they wear, who they see and speak to.
- They frequently cancel plans at the last minute giving short notice or vague excuses.
- They seem afraid of making their partner angry or need to constantly ‘keep the peace.’
- The partner ridicules them publicly or you sense hostility in their comments.
- The partner seems overly attentive, remains constantly by their side or is watchful about who they talk to.
- The partner may be overly possessive or jealous.
- Their children seem fearful or on edge in the partner’s company or at the mention of their name.
Visit the HELP Section for a list of national and specialist resources, should you need support. Remember that if you or someone else you know is in immediate danger, call the Police.
Knowing what to say to someone who may be experiencing domestic violence or sexual assault can be overwhelming and frightening. Though it may be tough, you can still be of help.
The most important thing to remember is that you don’t need to be an expert — you need to be a friend.
In addition to the info below, the national hotlines offer free, confidential services to anyone who has been affected by domestic violence and sexual assault, including friends and families.
- Listen without judgement
Remember, if someone you know discloses that they are currently experiencing abuse or have been abused or sexually assaulted in the past, this could be the first time they’re telling anyone. Listening without judgment or blame and letting them know they’re not alone can make a huge difference. If the victim/survivor is in need of support, ask them if they’d like to talk to a professional counsellor, and offer to sit with them while they call one of the 24-hour national hotlines. While you may have a strong reaction to what you’ve heard, it’s important to focus and fully listen to the survivor’s words. And if you’re in need of support for yourself after being there for your loved one, the hotlines can offer you help as well.
- Let them know that you believe them
By letting a victim/survivor know that you believe them, you can change that person’s life. A victim/survivor may feel like what happened to them is their fault. It’s not unusual for victims/survivors to experience self-blame, doubt, or denial. This could be the first time they’re telling someone so reassurance that you believe them and that this was not their fault can go a long way to making that person feel comfortable getting the help they need and deserve.
It can be helpful to communicate the following gently and repeatedly:
- “Nothing you did or could have done differently makes this your fault.”
- “The responsibility is on the person who hurt you.”
- “No one ever has the right to hurt you.”
- “I promise, you didn’t ask for this.”
- “I know that it can feel like you did something wrong, but you didn’t.”
- “It doesn’t matter if you did or didn’t _______. No one asks to be hurt in this way.”
Tip: No one deserves abuse or violence. Statements or questions that focus on what a victim did or didn’t do–unintentionally or not–signals that the survivor is responsible. The only person to blame for violence and abuse is the perpetrator. Although this sounds like a simple idea, educating yourself about the common myths about domestic violence and sexual assault can help you offer informed, compassionate support and make a huge difference.
Trauma can also impact memory. As a friend, it may seem natural to ask a survivor to try and piece together a traumatic event. For example, asking the last thing they remember, who they were with, etc. This can be confusing or disorienting. Remember, your job is to firstly be a friend, and a survivor will open up when they feel ready.
- Ask what more you can do to help
Ask what more you can do to help and know where to point someone for more help. You can also reach out to national hotlines for free, confidential help and/or referrals to local advocacy centres that offer additional counselling or assistance.
- Support the person’s decisions
Tip: This point can be very difficult. It can be quite tempting to try to “fix” things or solve the problem immediately. By listening, allowing a survivor to make decisions for her/himself and assuring them that their decisions are supported, you can make a huge impact on that survivor’s life.
It is critical for a victim/survivor to regain their sense of control. Support their decisions instead of pushing them to take actions that they may not feel comfortable with (such as reporting to police, or seeking counselling). It is also critical for the person experiencing abuse to make decisions for themselves. They understand the danger better than you will. Assure them that their decisions are supported. You don’t have to agree with their decisions but it is important to give them the authority to decide how they will handle things. If a victim/survivor wants to talk, try to be an open listener. If they prefer not to talk about the assault, then try to be supportive in other ways, such as letting them know that you care about them and are willing to listen at a later time. Balance their safety with their wishes about confidentiality: always respect the victim’s/survivor’s confidentiality and don’t tell others about their experience without explicit permission and consent. However, if you believe there to be immediate danger, call the police. Finally, encourage them to reach out to the national hotlines for help and guidance.
- Take care of yourself too. Make sure you seek support if you are feeling overwhelmed.
Domestic violence and sexual assault can be extremely difficult and painful experiences for the families and friends of victims/survivors. Common feelings of those supporting victims/survivors include helplessness, frustration, anger and guilt. It can be helpful to talk with someone. Confidential support is available.
- Ask what more you can do to help
While the responsibility for domestic violence or sexual assault lies with the perpetrators of these crimes, we all play a role in preventing violence and looking out for each other’s safety. Recognizing the signs of the behaviours that may signal domestic or sexual violence or circumstances that may lead to these crimes is a critical first step to taking action to prevent violence. Once you identify when to respond, you can then identify how to respond in a way that feels appropriate and comfortable.
TIP: Follow your instincts. If a situation feels wrong to you, it probably is. One way to decide is to ask yourself, “If I don’t act, could the situation get worse?” IF YES, then you should evaluate the best way to intervene.
Check out the following tips for evaluating the best way to intervene if you witness a situation between others that might be abusive or how to respond when witnessing a potential sexual assault:
Knowing How to Respond to Domestic Violence While it is Occurring
- Ask yourself if it’s safe to intervene
Safety is key in deciding when and how to respond to domestic and sexual violence while it’s occurring. If the situation is already violent or looks like it’s escalating quickly, don’t directly intervene.
If you’ve decided that you can safely intervene, you can create a distraction in a non-confrontational way. You can disrupt the situation just by talking, like striking up a conversation with the person who is being harassed or abused. Your goal is to prevent a situation from getting worse, or better yet, buy enough time to check in with the potential victim and ask them if they are okay.
- TIP: Ask for directions, the time, help looking for a lost item, or anything else that you think might keep them from leaving quickly. Better yet, if you can use a distraction that will get you a moment alone with the victim, you may have a moment to check with him/her and see if he/she wants any help. “Hey, I think your car is getting towed outside. I will stay here with your friend, while you go and check it out.” “Hey do you mind if I steal my friend for a second? It’s an emergency.” “Hey, I’m going to run to the restroom. Could you come with me?”
If you don’t have a lot of time, you can still speak out and say what’s happening isn’t right and reassure the mistreated person they don’t deserve these actions. If you feel comfortable approaching the victim, you could check in and simply say, “I’m concerned about what just happened. Is anything wrong?” You can also let them know that FREE and CONFIDENTIAL help is available to help victims, their children, and in many cases, their pets. Save the number of the National Hotlines in your phone in case you meet someone who needs it.
If you don’t feel comfortable directly talking with someone or distracting them, look for someone else who might be able to help you intervene – power in numbers can be one of the most valuable tools, or you can look for someone else who might be in a better position to get involved – i.e. tell the bouncer, find the person’s friends, or call the authorities.
We are all bystanders, all the time. We witness events unfolding around us constantly. Sometimes we recognise events as being problematic. When this happens, we make a decision to do or say something (and become an active bystander), or to simply let it go (and remain a passive bystander).
There are many factors which will influence why we decide to intervene or not but when we do decide to intervene we are sending a clear message to the wrongdoer that their behaviour is socially unacceptable. Social norms determine the rules of behaviour for given social groups or given social situations and so, if messages about the unacceptability of certain behaviour are constantly sent and reinforced within a community or group, then the boundaries of what is considered normal, acceptable behaviour will shift. Shifting the social norm to exclude undesirable behaviour can therefore be achieved by empowering people to become active, as opposed to passive, bystanders. -A review of evidence for bystander intervention to prevent sexual and domestic violence in universities, Dr Rachel Fenton 2016
While the responsibility for domestic violence or sexual assault lies with the perpetrators of these crimes, we all play a role in creating a culture of respect and preventing violence.
Some bystanders may witness an actual incident of abuse or sexual violence that’s already occurring—someone at a bar who sees a drunk person being taken advantage of or someone who hears screaming coming from a neighbour’s home. In this case, being an engaged bystander may mean intervening in violence that’s already occurring.
But speaking up and interrupting an abusive situation that’s already occurring is only a small part of bystander intervention.
Leading up to every incident of abuse or sexual assault are all kinds of behaviours, words, and actions that normalize and condone violence in a community. Even actions like a sexist joke or victim-blaming remark contribute to a culture in which domestic violence and sexual assault are tolerated and not treated with the gravity and urgency that these crimes deserve.
The good news is that if we all view ourselves as engaged bystanders and learn strategies for speaking up to challenge the social norms that contribute to the culture of violence, all of us can play an active role in ending domestic violence and sexual assault. Here are some “bystander scenarios” with tips to help you to take an active role in safely preventing and interrupting situations that may lead to sexual assault and domestic violence.
You think a friend or family member is in an abusive or unhealthy relationship. What do you do?
Once you recognize the warning signs that a situation might be abusive, you can then identify how to respond in a way that feels appropriate and comfortable.
Talk privately with the victim, and express concern by saying you’ve been worried about them. Listen without judgment and if they don’t want to talk, then let them know that you’ll be there for them if they ever do want to talk.
TIP: Allow the victim/survivor to make their own decisions. Personal style, culture, and context of the victim/survivor’s life may affect their reactions. A victim/survivor may not be comfortable identifying as a victim or with naming their experience as abuse or assault, and it is important to respect each person’s choices and style of coping with this traumatic event. – via RVA
Listening without judgment may make them feel comfortable opening up, and if they do disclose abuse, let them know you believe them. You can reassure them that they are not alone, this is not their fault and you are here to help. Some useful things to say might be, “No one deserves to be treated this way,” “You are not to blame,” or simply, “What’s happening is not your fault.”
TIP: Remember that although you may be having a strong reaction to what happened, it’s important to focus on the feelings and reactions of the victim/survivor rather than your own. Try not to outwardly judge or confront the abuser, as it may make the situation worse or more dangerous for the victim, and could put you in danger too.
Offer options by letting them know free, confidential resources are available and that you are here to support them in whatever choices they make. Offer to let them use your phone or computer to look up local resources or contact someone that can help them and any children involved. See international domestic and sexual violence resources here. (Link to library)
Your friend tells you that they were raped. What do you do?
The support survivors of sexual assault receive from the people they love and trust can be invaluable to their ability to cope with and heal from sexual assault. The following are some helpful suggestions from the Rape Crisis Center.
- Allow your friend to talk about what happened and control the direction of the conversation. Do not ask a lot of questions or focus on the attack itself, but rather on how they are handling the trauma.
- Listen without giving advice or trying to “fix” things
- When we care for someone, we often try to give advice, solve their problems or fix things for them. While it comes from a place of caring, our instinct to try to problem-solve or give advice can sometimes leave a survivor feeling as though their emotions are being dismissed. Sometimes, the issues a survivor is having will not feel fixable to them or to you, and it’s much more helpful to just be there to listen to whatever a survivor wants to share with you.
- Let the Survivor Have Control
- Allow survivors to make decisions for themselves and assure them that their decisions are supported. You don’t have to agree with their decisions but it is important to give them the authority to decide how they will handle things.
- Believe Them
- It is important that the survivor knows you believe what happened.
- Normalize Their Feelings
- Every survivor will react to their experience differently. Survivors may experience many upsetting, conflicting, confusing feelings after an assault. Survivors often re-experience the event through flashbacks, may feel on-edge all the time, or may be prone to sudden outbursts, which can feel especially upsetting and leave a survivor feeling even more disempowered. Some survivors may blame themselves for and feel frustrated by these intense feelings. It’s important to remind a survivor these feelings and responses are out of their control and are the body’s way of responding to a traumatic event. Something helpful you could say would be, “You are having a normal response to an abnormal situation.“
- Provide Unconditional Support
- It will help your friend to hear that they are not to blame for the assault. Regardless of an individual’s choices prior to the attack, no one ever asks to be or deserves to be raped or sexually assaulted.
- Be Patient
- Healing takes time, and every survivor copes with trauma differently. Don’t pressure or rush your friend to be “normal” or to “just move on.” Instead, reassure your friend that support will be available throughout the healing process, however long it may take.
- Let Them Know that Help is Available
- If they are interested and open to receiving assistance, offer to help find local services for them.
Some helpful statements include:
- I believe you.
- This is not your fault.
- I am so sorry that this happened.
- You did not deserve this.
- I am happy that you are safe and that you are here to talk with me.
- Thank you for being brave/comfortable enough to talk with me.
- How can I help you right now?
Supporting a survivor can feel challenging for a number of reasons: you may be worried about upsetting the survivor, you may have other personal experience with this issue, or you may feel you don’t know what to say at all. The most important things you can do for a survivor are to listen, validate, ask how you can help, know where to refer a survivor for further help, listen without judgment, and care for yourself.
- Make Sure You Are Getting the Support You Need
Watching a friend or loved one work through the aftermath of a sexual assault can be an extremely difficult and painful experience. Common feelings of those supporting someone who has been assaulted include helplessness, frustration, anger and guilt. It can be helpful to talk with someone other than the survivor about these feelings.
TIP: You understandably may be experiencing discomfort, shock or uncertainty, and have a lot of questions. To respect the survivor’s discomfort and give yourself the space you need to process your own feelings, wait until you’re away from the survivor and call your local sexual assault hotline for free, confidential support.
You’re at a party or out drinking. Someone nearby has had a lot to drink and is being harassed or manipulated by someone you think may do something physically harmful to them. What do you do?
Identify why you’re worried: If you see something that makes you uneasy, identify the behaviour that worries you. Is the person you are concerned about drinking too much, and are you afraid they might not be able to say no? Are you afraid that they won’t really be capable of giving consent?
Consider whether to intervene: A situation doesn’t have to be dangerous for you to step in. Ask yourself: How might the situation affect the people who are involved? What’s the possible outcome?
Enlist allies: This is key. There’s comfort in numbers. Enlisting allies, like a mutual friend, the bartender, party host or a bouncer can be much more productive and safer than trying to go it alone. Some ways you might handle the situation:
- Consider asking if the potential victim needs help.
- Don’t leave. By remaining present as a witness, the potential perpetrator is less likely to act.
- If you know the potential perpetrator, ask him/her to leave the potential victim alone.
You wake up in the middle of the night hearing screaming, crying, yelling and banging from a neighbour’s house or flat. What do you do?
- Call the police and report what you hear.
- If you know the neighbour and can find a time when it is safe to talk to the victim, let them know that resources are available locally to help them.
- If you suspect violence but aren’t totally sure, call your national or local domestic violence hotline and ask for advice.
- Offer to let them use your phone or computer to look up local resources or to contact someone that can help them.