ATrain Education


Continuing Education for Health Professionals

IA: Abuse of Dependent Adults

Module 10

Communication with Victims and Families

Effective communication is based first of all on the principle of respect. Both the sender and the receiver of the message have unique physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual characteristics. Effective communication shows acceptance of a person’s individual worth and involves good listening skills.

Overcoming Communication Barriers

When talking with a dependent adult, the following principles will facilitate communication:

  • Use clear, simple language.
  • Ask open-ended, one-part questions.
  • Be an attentive listener and allow for periods of silence.
  • Allow sufficient time so there is no pressure to hurry.
  • Use explanations that progress from simple to complex.
  • Allow eye contact, but do not force it.
  • Allow plenty of space to move around; medications may cause restlessness.
  • Keep background noise to a minimum.
  • Sit facing the person to help them identify visual cues.

Ways to Ask About Abuse

First, be direct. Ask non-threatening questions and respond empathetically. Second, universalize the question rather than personalizing it. For example, “Many people are hurt physically or in other ways by someone they know. Is this happening to you?”

Make your questions gradual and exploratory, such as:

  • How are things going for you?
  • What kinds of stresses do you have in your everyday life?
  • Is there anyone in your life who is pretty strict, or hard to please?
  • Do you get blamed a lot?
  • Can you disagree? What happens when you don’t agree?
  • Have there been situations in which you felt afraid?
  • How often are you called names? How often are your feelings hurt?
  • Are you ever threatened with forced sex, been pushed or shoved, had your hair pulled or been slapped?
  • Have you had things thrown at you?
  • Have any of your precious possessions been deliberately broken?
  • Have your pets, children, grandchildren, or other people close to you been intentionally hurt?
  • Are you ever prevented from leave the house, or from seeing friends or family?
  • Do you feel safe in your home?
  • Should I be concerned for your safety?

Supportive Ways to Respond

When talking with victims of abuse:

  • Allow time for the person to speak.
  • Listen.
  • Believe what the person says.
  • Empathize: validate the person’s feelings.
  • Make it clear that the abuse was wrong and it was not the victim’s fault.
  • Speak directly about the violence.
  • Ask in what ways you can be helpful.
  • Respect the person’s right to self-determination.
  • Assure the person there are resources to help and that he or she is not alone.
  • Discuss a safety plan and offer followup contacts.

Communication Don’ts

When talking with victims of abuse:

  • DON’T talk to the victim while others are present. Confidentiality and privacy are essential and the presence of others may interfere with information the victim wants to provide, particularly if the perpetrator is present.
  • DON’T blame the victim. Societal attitudes often blame the victim for the abusive situation. This is extremely harmful to the victim and may result in an inability to trust.
  • DON’T tell the victim it is not that bad or minimize the pain. The shame and fear he or she feels is natural.
  • DON’T check out the story with the abuser. Talking with abusers may tip them off to a possible evaluation. This not only hinders the evaluation but may also endanger the victim.
  • DON’T demand that the victim take a certain course of action. You may offer suggestions, but it is necessary for him or her to be comfortable with the plan of recourse.
  • DON’T think you have failed if you did not fix the situation. Many abusive situations indicate long-entrenched patterns of behavior. To assume that you can always alleviate the situation by reporting the abuse or other action is unrealistic.

Try to establish whether the victim is competent and does or does not want help, or whether he or she is incompetent to make decisions. If he or she is not competent, someone else is needed to make decisions for that person. In some cases the victim is competent to make decisions but there are barriers to that person’s being able to ask for or accept help.

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