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Staying safe in an abusive home

You have a right to be safe. In an unsafe environment like an abusive home, your safety is the most important thing. Here’s a guide to staying safe when leaving isn’t an option.

Teen girl looking concerned as a shadow looms behind her

Ways to stay safe when leaving isn't an option

If you find yourself in a situation where leaving home or accessing supports is difficult, such as during a pandemic lockdown or a natural disaster, it's important to focus on your short-term safety by:

Minimising contact with unsafe people

Maintaining contact with safe people

Creating a sense of safety

Having a safety plan (for if conflict occurs)

Minimise contact with unsafe people

Hopefully having less contact with unsafe people will lead to less conflict

Find a place at home where you can isolate or have some space. 

If you can’t physically remove yourself, find ways to mentally distance yourself safely or avoid interacting with the abuser, e.g. put in headphones, focus on reading a book.

Maintain contact with safe people

Maintain contact with friends and family online/by phone

Safe people can sometimes support you practically, e.g. giving you a safe place to stay if you need it, or emotionally, by being there to support you. 

Because abuse is also psychological, connecting with people who like you for who you are as a person is also important for your self-worth. 

You can also contact support services online/by phone, e.g. Kids Helpline.

Create a sense of safety

Practice calming activities to reduce anxiety or manage emotional distress.

These activities will vary from person to person, but can include breathing activities, meditation, mindfulness or anything else that gives you a sense of calm and control. 

Feeling unsafe can result in a stress response, which means you are less likely to think clearly or make safe choices.

Helpful resources

It might help to learn some more about how your brain works when you’re stressed or anxious. Check out these articles:

Make a safety plan

A safety plan helps you be prepared to deal with conflict or abuse if it occurs.

A safety plan might include:

 

Need help with safety planning? Want to report instances of abuse to keep a record? 

You can talk to a Kids Helpline counsellor confidentially and anonymously.
 

Know the signs that things are escalating

There are often ‘warning signs’ before instances of violence or other instances of extreme abuse. Here’s what to look out for:

Abuser signs:

  • Increase in abusive behaviours
  • Verbal abuse or threats that suggest future abuse, e.g. criticising you or blaming you
  • Increased stress on your family in general or the abuser, e.g. losing their job
  • Increase in harmful coping strategies, e.g. drinking, gambling
  • Increase in negative moods, e.g. grumpiness, sulking and decrease in positive moods, e.g. no sense of humour

Your signs:

  • Changes in appetite and sleep patterns

  • Body clues such as pounding heart, shortness of breath, upset stomach, headaches

  • Feeling like you are ‘walking on eggshells’ and deliberately changing your behaviours to avoid ‘setting them off’

  • Feeling bad about yourself or blaming yourself (can be a sign of psychological abuse)

  • Increased fear or disassociation (feeling ‘disconnected’, ‘surreal’, or like you are ‘in a dream’ when abuse occurs)

Look for patterns

It’s helpful to look for patterns in where, when and how abuse occurs. For example, you might notice violence is more likely to happen after dinner time in the living room. Knowing the pattern means that you can change your behaviour to avoid the living room after dinner. 

“You aren’t responsible for someone else’s behaviours. The sole responsibility for violent behaviour rests on the abuser, not on the victims of abuse.” – Amanda, Kids Helpline Counsellor

De-escalating conflict

De-escalation is about preventing abuse from reaching ‘critical’ or ‘explosion’ point

You also know the abuser and your family dynamic best. If you have found any strategies that work for you and your family, it’s important to use them.

  • Stay calm. Regulate and control your breathing. Mentally scan your body and deliberately relax certain muscle groups such as your hands and soften your face. Use self-talk, e.g. “Stay calm.” Try not to personalise the abuser’s words or actions or react. 
  • Keep physical space between you.
  • Keep your movements calm and non-threatening. Neutral facial expression. Open body language. No sudden movements. Move slowly and deliberately.
  • Talk softly/calmly and slowly. If someone is escalating, they may become aggressive. Raising your voice or reacting with aggression could be viewed as a threat. Plus, people mirror each other’s actions. If you talk calmly, they may unconsciously copy you and start to calm down.
  • Verbally empathise with them. Validating their feelings (but not their actions) by saying things like, “That must have been so frustrating,” or “That must be incredibly annoying,” can make them feel heard, which may prevent them escalating.
  • Agree with them. Agreeing verbally (even if you actually disagree) may prevent defensiveness or conflict. Try to sound as honest as possible, so they are less likely to interpret your response as sarcasm.
  • Give them the perception/sense of control. You know how in movies with hostage situations, they always tell you to ‘cooperate’ and ‘don’t be a hero’? That’s because when a perpetrator feels like they are in control, they tend to be calmer. Following their instructions (where possible and safe to do so) may help prevent them escalating.

Don't argue with an abuser, interrupt them or escalate/react with aggression

Remember, it’s important to not argue with an abuser, interrupt them or escalate/react with aggression, if possible, as these things may result in an escalation of abuse or violence.

If you are in immediate danger, or at significant risk of harm, call emergency services on 000.

Exit strategy options

Your exit strategy is what you will do if you can’t de-escalate the situation and violence is imminent or happening. It’s your ‘plan of retreat’. The top priority of this is the immediate safety or you and any other victims of abuse.

Your exit strategy might include:
 

Going outside or to a safe room that has more than one accessible exit

Distract the abuser or redirect their attention, e.g. “I heard a knock at the door.”

Practice a quick excuse to leave, e.g. “Hang on, I was just on the phone and haven’t hung up yet. I better go do that now.”

If you pack a safety bag, make sure it is somewhere they could never accidentally find it, e.g. at a friend's house

Have a bag packed with important documents, money, spare keys and clothing in case you need to leave quickly

Give safe people support instructions in advance and have a plan to activate this, e.g. ask a neighbour to call the police if they hear yelling, organise a code word with a friend to call for help

Don't keep it a secret

Abusers choose who they abuse, when and where they abuse. They are able to stop abusing when it benefits them. 

When it comes to violence, they can also choose to harm in ways that aren’t easily visible and don’t always leave marks. 

Abuse thrives on secrecy. Asking for support and not knowing what comes next can be frightening. But abuse rarely resolves without intervention, as abusers want it to be kept secret so they can keep abusing.

If you are experiencing violence or abuse at home, please tell an adult you trust about what’s going on. Tell more than one adult and keep talking to them until well and truly after the abuse has stopped. 

You can also talk to Kids Helpline (anonymously if you choose) about your options.
 

Look after your self-worth and mental health

Abuse often makes you feel bad about yourself. This makes it even harder to get help. Your physical safety is top priority, but your mental health is also really important! 
 

Safety, care, kindness, love and respect are universal human rights. This means that they belong to everybody, without conditions. You don’t just deserve these things – you also have a right to them.

Having self-worth doesn’t mean feeling good about yourself all the time. It is about being realistic and reasonable, and being kind to yourself (rather than judging yourself harshly). Here are some things that may help:

  • Write down affirmations, especially those based on behaviours or skills, e.g. “I’m good at helping others”, “I’m a good pet owner to my dog.”
  • Think about (or ask) people you care about/safe people what they like about you.
  • Do kind things for other people. This can be a shortcut to feeling good because helping others releases feel-good chemicals in our brain.
  • Describe yourself as if you are describing a friend. Sometimes we are very judgemental on ourselves; we are much kinder to friends!
  • Pay attention to how much safe people (and pets) love and care for you. Seeing yourself through others' eyes can be empowering.

If you’re feeling unsafe, we're here to help

No matter how alone or worried you feel, Kids Helpline will always listen and support you.

It can be scary telling somebody that you are being abused. Our counsellors are not here to judge you – we listen and we care. Give us a call, start a WebChat or send us an email anytime, for any reason.

This content was last reviewed 21/04/2020

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