Helping a Friend Through Abuse

Link to "How to Talk to a Friend Who is in an Abusive Relationship"
Link to “How to Talk to a Friend Who is in an Abusive Relationship”

I’ve heard that hair stylists are the most common sounding board for women suffering from abuse. They are a friendly, familiar face but not an individual you’re particularly close to and so it feels safe to discuss your problems with them. And it tends to be cheaper than paying a therapist.

So, to all the hair stylists and cosmetologists out there who have probably heard all sorts of interesting things from clients, what do you do when a customer confides in you about an abusive situation?

To all of you who are not in the business of beautification, what do you do when you’re at a cafe with a friend, enjoying a wonderfully frothy cappuccino, and she seems to be trying to tell you that she is in an abusive situation (or comes right out and says it)?

It can be difficult and intimidating to be the listening ear for someone who is experiencing deep hurt, especially if you’ve never been in that situation yourself. However, you may be the one person they feel they can trust! And, most likely, they won’t be looking to you for divine words of wisdom…they just need you to listen and support them.

Link to "What to Say and Not Say to a Victim of Sexual Assault"
Link to “What to Say and Not Say to a Victim of Sexual Assault”

Counselors Justin and Lindsey Holcomb offer a list of examples of what to say and what NOT to say to a friend who has experienced abuse (linked above). Perhaps the most important thing you can say to a friend who tells you she/he is being abused is an honest “I believe you”. Coming from someone they trust, this will be incredibly empowering. You never know how long they’ve  wanted to say something. Once they have found the courage to speak up, don’t let them down by questioning the validity of what they are saying.

At the same time, certain phrases of sympathy should be avoided, like “I know exactly how you feel”, “It’s going to be alright”, or even “I understand”. You might be trying to encourage your friend but what often sounds like empathy can lead a survivor to feel a renewed sense of loneliness or guilt. Be honest but avoid cliches.

Don’t down plan emotions. Your friend is riding a roller coaster of distressing feelings and every feeling – though perhaps illogical to you – is valid. If they are angry, let them talk through their anger. If they are grieving, grieve with them. If they feel guilty, reassure them that they have done nothing to deserve the abuse. You will likely feel powerless and that’s perfectly natural. Do not focus on “fixing” one reaction [i.e. depression or self-blame] but focus on supporting your friend.

If you meet a friend for coffee or find yourself on the receiving end of a distressed phone call, consider the following questions:

1. Are you safe right now/do you feel safe going back home?

2. Have you talked with anyone else [doctor, counselor, trusted friend]?

3. What do you think you’ll do next?

4. What can I do to help you?

5. [For abuse survivors] I know each situation is unique but here is what helped me during situation X. Do you think you would find that helpful?

Before the conversation ends, tell that family member or friend that they are courageous and strong. It takes a great amount of bravery to talk to someone about abuse, to seek help. Acknowledge that commendable attribute. Even if you think they should have left the situation years ago, your friend needs to hear how brave they are now.

Finally, follow up. Text or call your friend to ask how they are doing. Be someone they can rely on for a listening ear and a compassionate response. Look for resources to grow your knowledge of abuse and its effects and, when appropriate, share them with your friend.

It is usually unwise to put your own health/safety at risk to help an abused friend but there are numerous things you can do to keep you, and her/him, safe. Even if you don’t know for sure whether it is a situation of abuse or not, there are ways you can find out and get help without being intrusive.

Link to Refuge: "How Can I Help?"
Link to Refuge: “How Can I Help?”

If and when you are close to someone who is experiencing or has experienced any type of abuse, you are a secondary victim or secondary survivor. That is, the abuse will have a negative effect upon you, as well. If your spouse, parent, child, or close friend is hurting, you will naturally be affected. To find information on self-care for secondary survivors, reference Secondary Victims of Abuse.

The Domestic Violence Resource Centre in Victoria, Australia has a fantastic website. They offer resources and support as well as assistance to those within their community. The “help and advice” portion of their website includes a very detailed section for family, friends, and neighbors of abuse victims. They provide a long list of the signs of abuse, ideas for how to approach a conversation if you suspect abuse, suggestions for how to help (and what definitely won’t help), and advice for keeping yourself safe. Also, for those cases in which you know both the abused and the abuser well, they offer suggestions on how to respond toward the abuser. There are also survivor stories available and general information about helpful books and websites:

DVRCV link*

*For anyone in Australia or Tasmania, there is also a page which provides contact information for support services within your region. If and when you do begin seeking services via the Web, be sure you are using a safe computer/deleting your browsing history if your abuser is particularly controlling.

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