Sometimes the signs of abuse are obvious—you witness a volatile fight between your friend and his or her significant other, or your friend outright confides in you that he or she is being abused by their partner.
But more often, it’s not so clear. Maybe your friend is being secretive, spending lots of time with a new partner and doesn’t really open up about how it’s going. Maybe he or she seems more withdrawn, sad or anxious. Could these be signs that your friend may be in danger?
“Friends usually can detect something but they can’t put their finger on it,” says Susan Bernstein, licensed social worker and therapist. They may notice something that sets off alarm bells, but they try to rationalize the behavior. “No friend or family member ever wants to believe heinous acts are occurring, especially against the people they love,” she adds.
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The various types of abuse can also add to the confusion. “Many people don’t realize there are different types of violence—physical, sexual, psychological—so they don’t pick up on it,” Bernstein says.
Physical violence can be the easiest type to identify because bruises, marks and injuries are difficult to conceal. “It’s the mental anguish, the psychological torment and isolation, or the secretiveness of sexual assault [and other non-physical abuse] that’s often harder to detect,” she adds.
Watch for signs that your friend might be isolated, intimidated or threatened. If a partner is calling your friend names, making her feel bad about herself, or telling her she shouldn’t hang out with her friends, that’s cause for concern.
“If you’re feeling that your friendship is jeopardized or your friend has had a change in behavior, trust your feelings,” Bernstein says. Take anything your friend confides seriously, even if your friend acts like it’s no big deal.
Be aware that abusive partners can often come across as nice people. “Kids can be very smart but also somewhat naïve,” Bernstein says. “They think, ‘This is my friend. How can my friend be mean?’ They don’t see the shift in power or the manipulations.”
Don’t blame your friend for getting into an abusive relationship. “Kids want to be liked, admired, found attractive and loved. They seek these things out. Perpetrators know how to manipulate that,” Bernstein says.
How Can You Help?
That’s a great question. You might start by taking this short quiz to see how willing and ready you are to help. If you score well, fantastic—you may be ready to extend a hand now. If you don’t score well, that’s okay because here are some ideas and resources that will help you better prepare:
Trust your instincts. “If something doesn’t feel right or look right, get some help.”
Help your friend find their voice. “Try saying, ‘I care for you too much to let this happen. Who can I contact?’” she recommends. Even if your friend says that everything is okay, if you’re worried, talk about your concerns.
Turn to a trusted adult for assistance. In an ideal situation, you would turn to your friend’s parents first. But that’s not always possible. You may worry that you would be betraying your friend.
“Dating violence is tough because when young kids aren’t really allowed to start dating they start keeping secrets from their parents,” Bernstein says. Then when they are facing violence they are afraid to seek help because the relationship wasn’t supposed to be happening in the first place. They don’t want to get into trouble.
And sometimes, your friend’s parents might not be reliable. A parent who is abused may believe that the abuse is no big deal and fail to provide assistance. If you have reason to believe your friend’s parents can’t or won’t be helpful, turn to another adult.
For instance, you can also talk to guidance counselors, school psychologists or a domestic violence advocate about your concerns—those are people who are clinically trained in how best to address these issues. An excellent resource is loveisrespect.org, which offers a helpline staffed with trained advocates at 866-331-9474; you can also text “loveis” to 22522 for help.
Whatever you do, keep in mind that the majority of people who experience relationship violence first experience abuse before the age of 24. If you are concerned about a friend, don’t just hope things get better; do what you can to help. Most teenage survivors of dating abuse will later advise others that they wished they had known better how to recognize the abuse and escape it sooner.
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