Supporting a Friend Who Has Experienced Family Violence

If you are looking for information on family violence please click here.  For some basic principles of support see the section on supporting a friend who has experienced relationship violence.

This page is intended to be an introduction to some of the important things to keep in mind while supporting a friend who has experienced or is experiencing family violence.

From "Allies in Healing" by Laura Davis:

 
"Survivors rarely feel one way toward their perpetrators, particularly when the abuser is a family member.  Most feel some combination of love, anguish, hatred, rage, confusion, fear loyalty, and longing.  This is natural.  Even when they are treated terribly, children hold on to the hope that they can change things by altering their own behavior.  This unrealistic wish demonstrates the extent to which children will twist things so they don't have to see the adults around them as unreliable, hurtful, or out of control." (212)
Davis, L. (1991).  Allies in Healing: When the Person You Love Was Sexually Abused as a Child.  New York: HarperCollins.

Things to keep in mind when supporting a friend:

Never criminalize their family member for what they did.  While you may feel frustrated, angry, or hateful towards that person because of the pain they caused your friend, expressing those feelings to your friend may prevent your friend from approaching you in the future.
 
Be open to how your friend feels towards their family.  They may be angry and refuse to speak with their family members.  However, it is important to remember that those feelings of anger and pain are often mixed with intense and complicated feelings of love.
 
It is not about you.  While the violence your friend has experienced may affect you because you see their emotions related to it, the violence they have experienced, the emotions related to it, and the choices they make about their family are not about you.
 

Remain supportive and open to them.  If it becomes too much for you to handle, it's ok to set boundaries and/or refer them to resources (at the bottom of this page).

Talking to a Friend

Because we are in college, the effects of family violence might not be immediately evident.  Often, conversations around family violence will come up only if the person chooses to talk about it or if they get triggered.  Just as with relationship violence, some people do not identify their experiences with their family as abusive.  Below are some things that may be helpful to say if a friend approaches and tells you about something a family member said or did.  There are also some things which may not be helpful.

Helpful things to say:

 "It sounds like that was really hard for you."

Reflect back what they say to make sure you are understanding it.

 "You don't deserve to be treated like that."

 Validate their feelings.

"Is there anything I can do that would help you feel safe with me?"
 Give them choice in the relationship.
"I'm here if you ever need to talk."
Be supportive.
"I believe you."
Validate.  A lot of people who have experienced violence question whether what happened to them was real, wrong, or actually abusive.

Unhelpful things:

"Why don't you just leave or stop talking to them?"
While, yes, this may sound like the easiest solution, it is much more complicated than this.  Abuse does not stop feelings of love.  Remember, they are still their only family.
"Get over it."
So much easier said than done.
"I will be your family."
While it is a nice thing to say, replacing family has to be the person's choice.  This type of comment is often based off of the presumption that the person would choose to shut out their family.  It also invalidates any feelings of love they may have towards their family.

*Remember, you don't have to say something profound.  Just be open.  Give them choices and give them the opportunity to tell you.  Express your concern and show them that you care.  Also, you can contact RISE to help you develop a plan to talk to your friend.

Resources

Helpmate (Asheville Domestic Violence Center)

RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network)

National Domestic Violence Hotline