Domestic violence knows no holiday: Give the gift of support to a survivor

(BPT) - The holidays are a time for joy and peace. You can help keep it that way.

For millions of domestic violence survivors, the holiday season is especially stressful. As you gather with friends and family, pay special attention to those around you. If you suspect someone you care about is being abused, know you can make a difference. Listen without judgment, help create a safety plan and share resources.

“The best gift you can give a domestic violence survivor isn’t something you’ll find on a store shelf — it’s your support,” says Wanda Filer, MD, and president of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Before you begin, know the facts. Domestic violence is abuse by a parent, spouse, intimate partner or caregiver. It isn’t exclusively physical. Abuse can be sexual, financial, and/or emotional. It can be controlling, too. No one is immune. Domestic violence affects people of all genders, sexual orientations, races and socioeconomic classes.

If you suspect a friend or family member is being abused, approach the topic carefully in a safe, one-on-one setting. When a domestic violence survivor talks about their experiences, they are making a leap of faith that the listener won’t carelessly share the information with a spouse, neighbor or other family member. Know that they are opening up to you because they trust that you won’t put them at increased risk.

Listen, don’t judge

Listen with empathy. Emphasize that the abuse is not the survivor’s fault. You may be tempted to tell your loved one to leave his or her abuser, but don’t.

Leaving a violent relationship can be frightening, and even dangerous. Most survivors of domestic violence leave and return to a relationship many times before they leave for good. Be patient; the process may take longer than you’d like. Show respect for their ability to make their own life decisions.

“It can be tempting to say, ‘you need to leave now,’ but that advice may do more harm than good. There are a lot of reasons domestic violence survivors stay in abusive relationships, including fear of retribution,” Filer says. “Instead, focus on being supportive and empathetic.”

Safety planning

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, along with most other domestic violence prevention organizations, offers safety planning resources to domestic violence survivors. A personalized plan can help your loved one prepare to respond in a violent or abusive situation.

Though plans vary, there are common themes. Refer your loved one to the National Domestic Violence Hotline for safety planning help, but if the two of you talk about a safety plan together, be sure to cover the following ground:

* Identify the safest areas of the house. These areas should be weapon-free and have windows or doors for escape. Your loved one may need to move to these areas when he/she senses rising tension.

* Develop a signal or code word for family, loved ones or neighbors so that they’ll know to call for help.

* Talk about what might go into an emergency bag (important documents, a change of clothes, checkbook, etc.) and where one could be safely stored.

Share resources

Let your loved one know there are experts who can help. This information can save lives.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline offers round-the-clock, confidential, anonymous support at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Domesticshelters.org hosts a searchable database of the nation’s domestic violence shelters.

Family physicians can treat medical problems, provide support and make referrals. Other health care professionals can also help.

“We have a very dangerous tendency to view domestic violence as a private matter, but here’s the truth: Domestic violence is everyone’s business. Speak up. Show your support. Then show respect and keep this conversation confidential,” Filer says.


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