The holidays can be a very difficult time of year for many, including survivors of domestic violence. For many survivors, the holidays may be a time when they are forced to make the difficult decision to miss time with loved ones, as family gatherings may mean coming face-to-face with their abuser. While we are always here to listen and offer support, we know that many survivors turn to a friend or family member first. Knowing what to do or say when a loved one discloses abuse can feel overwhelming or scary at first. Here are some tips on how to support a loved one who has experienced abuse.
How you can help as a family/friend:
Listen and Believe
For many survivors, the fear of not being believed is one of the biggest barriers in reaching out for help. But even when met with belief, it can be hard when sharing one’s story is met with a litany of ideas of what one should do. If a friend or family member is trusting you with their story, they’re asking you to listen. As much as we wish to fix the situation, the best thing we can do is be with that person and honor their experience. If someone is asking for advice on what to do next, try giving options rather than advice. This way, if your loved one chooses not to do what you want, there is less shame in them turning to you again for help in the future.
Make time to reach out
Abuse thrives in isolation. From the outside, it may appear that a friend or family member is being withdrawn or stops showing up to social events. There can be many reasons why someone may pull away, but it’s important to recognize there could be something more going on. If you haven’t heard from a loved one in a while, make time to reach out to them. If abuse is happening, this can be a powerful way to decrease isolation, and if no abuse is occurring, it’s a great way to maintain connection!
Honor survivor’s expertise
At REACH, we adhere to the philosophy that survivors are the experts in their own lives. This means that the survivor knows best what works best for them in their situation. Survivors who experience abuse have been recognizing what has worked and not worked for a long time. They know best how their abuser will react to changes they make, or if a restraining order would be effective. When we support survivors, the most important thing is to recognize that they are the expert. We are here to provide support and help think through potential options, but the choices should always be made by them.
Know your resources
Many people mistakenly believe that REACH’s 24/7 hotline is only available for survivors. We are also here for you! Supporting someone we care about who is experiencing abuse can be such an overwhelming experience. If you’re struggling to think about the best way to support your friend or family member, or are just overwhelmed by the stories you are hearing, call us. We are here for you. We know that not every survivor will call our hotline, but many will turn to their friends or family members for support. You play a crucial role in supporting survivors, and we are here to make sure you are never alone.
If you are a survivor, you might want to consider:
Have a plan.
If the holidays, or any time of year, feel challenging for you, sometimes it can help us feel in control to have a plan (sometimes thought of us a safety plan). The best plans are individualized and specific. If you’re worried about safety, perhaps consider creating a safe word with a trusted friend or family member that when used means to call for help. Or consider what you may need to quickly leave a situation; where are the closest exits, do you have your phone and an extra charger handy, do you have access to money or a Charlie Card?
Recognize your emotional needs.
Safety plans aren’t just about physical safety. It’s important to consider and validate the emotional toll that the holidays can take on you as well. Are you going to be around people who may be triggering for you? If so, recognize how you’re feeling going into this season. For some, changing plans might be an option, but for others, that may not be possible. Whatever the situation, recognizing and validating your emotional needs can be a first step to feeling in control.
It’s okay to set boundaries.
The holiday season can bring up lots of emotions for so many of us, and for trauma survivors, these emotions can make this time of year even more challenging. Sometimes, the holiday season means spending time with people who have not believed our stories of abuse, or perhaps were the ones to hurt us. It is okay to set boundaries. It is okay to say no.
Know your resources.
REACH’s hotline is available 24/7 as a support. We’re here to support you if you’re nervous about a situation becoming dangerous, but we’re also here to just listen. If you’re in need of more intensive support, we also have a team of advocates who can support you in a variety of ways whether that be accompanying you to court, safety planning, connecting you with support groups or other resources.