My Friend/Crush said she was afraid of her dad. What do I Do?

Jaden
asks:
So me and my crush and friend were at the beach today and all was going well until her dad (who divorced her mom, her mom could see her that week) showed up and started ruining the whole day. I don't know exactly what happened because I wanted to stay out of it. She started crying (her girl friend was comforting her). Fast forward a bit afterwards, I could tell she was upset by the whole thing but tried to shrug it off. Then I asked her why she couldn't choose to stay with her mom (she is of age to choose which parent to stay with) instead of her dad. She said she loved him but couldn't always deal with his crap, especially today. I tried to keep it at that but my curiosity got the best of me. I asked again why she couldn't choose to stay with her mom. She then got sad and almost yelled "Because I am afraid of him." Then I yelled (out of anger) "You shouldn't be afraid of your dad!" I was angry with her dad, not her. Her friend said not to say that, I felt terrible afterwards. I still feel uncomfortable that she was afraid of her dad. I want to talk about it with her (to make hers feel better thus making me feel better) but I feel like she doesn't want to. Even if she did, she knows I like her so I don't want to make her feel like I am only listening to her to get closer to her, which is totally not the case. Sorry for making this almost like a story but I just wanted to make sure it was understandable.
Sam W replies:

Hi Jaden,

It sounds like you care about this person, and that you're worried about her. You're also in a difficult position, because it sounds like both you and she are minors, and the person she's afraid of is an adult who's supposed to be caring for her. That may mean that if she reaches out for help, there will be people who disbelieve her and dismiss her because she is young.

Before we delve in to specific things you can do, we need to address a caveat: she has to steer the ship. You can offer support, you can encourage her to seek outside help, you can offer resources, but ultimately it's up to her to decide how she wants to proceed (and it goes without saying that if you do end up supporting her, she doesn't owe you a reciprocation of your crush). There have been plenty of well-meaning, loving people who try to help their friends out of a bad situation and end up pushing too hard and removing said friend's agency. Your friend knows what the best choice for her needs and her safety is in this moment.

The first step is to talk to your friend and explain things to her the way you've explained them here: that you're sorry for snapping at her, that you want to give her a space to talk about what's wrong, and that you don't have any sneaky reasons for doing so. Apologize for pushing her for an explanation when she maybe didn't want to give one. Offer her the space to talk about what's going on. If she takes the offer, just sit and listen to what she has to say. If she says she doesn't want to discuss what's going on, respect that boundary and let her know that if she needs to talk in the future, you're willing to listen.

If she does want to talk about it and takes you up on the offer of support the next steps are harder to foresee. You and I don't have a lot of detail about what her dad is doing to make her afraid, which makes it difficult to decide on a course of action. I'm going to go over some of the most likely scenarios in the hopes that one or more of them will be useful (I'm also assuming that you're in the U.S. or another location with social services). The largest piece of advice I have for her is to read this guide on how to get out of or get through an abusive situation. It has a lot of specific ideas to help her keep herself safe and get help. I'm not going to rehash that article here, but let's pull out some basic steps that she might have to take.

Let's start with the worst case scenario: her dad is physically abusing her. If that's the case, encourage her to speak to an adult who is a mandated reporter, ideally one she has a trusting relationship with. Being a mandated reporter means they are legally required to report when someone under 18 is being abused, and teachers, counselors, or school nurses are all under that mandate. She can also make the report herself, if she feels up to doing that. If she's in contact with her mom, her mom could also make the report on her behalf. There's no guaranteeing what the report will lead to, but a good outcome would be her dad losing custody rights and her being able to stay with her mom. Reporting is not without risks, especially if an investigation is done but human services decides, for whatever reason, that there isn't sufficient evidence to continue with an intervention. However, if her dad is abusing her, reporting is the best way to make it stop and get her somewhere safe.

There's also the possibility that he's abusing her emotionally and psychologically, but there hasn't been any physical abuse. This is not any less terrible than physical abuse, and she should still report this or tell a trusted adult about it. However, she (and you) should be aware that abuse of this kind is harder to get people to take seriously, especially when it's between a parent and a child. Plenty of people are willing to write off abuse as discipline or a "parenting style" and tell the victim they're making a fuss over nothing (those people are wrong wrong wrongity wrong, by the way). Even if it is taken seriously, emotional abuse is harder to "prove" because it doesn't leave physical evidence. It's seen as being the victim's word against the perpetrators'. Your friend should still take steps to get support or get away, but I don't want to mislead either of you into thinking it will be as easy as you or I want it to be.

In both cases of abuse, there are two steps you can encourage her to take. One is to document incidents of abuse, so that she can provide a timeline and examples of what is happening to those who are trying to help her. The other is to make sure she has ways of documenting information and contacting people that aren't being monitored by her dad. If her dad checks her phone, she can communicate via email (or call people instead of text, since it's easier to hide the purpose of the conversation) or if she has the money to do so get another phone that lives somewhere safe, like school. If he monitors her computer, she can try using one at school or in the library.

What if the situation isn't as severe as all that and her dad isn't abusive? I'll admit that feels unlikely to me, since people generally aren't afraid of their parent without a reason. Usually something is happening, or has happened, that tells them that person is not safe. For the sake of being thorough, I'll explore the option all the same. If she feels like her dad is not respecting her boundaries, this might be the time that she practices advocating for her needs, such as wanting to spend more time with her mom. This article covers ways that she can try to make that shift happen by creating and enforcing boundaries when she can. Maybe this is a case of a parent adjusting badly to a young person growing into an independent being and she and her dad are fighting a bunch, and there are some strategies that she and her dad can learn to disagree productively and fairly. Maybe there is room for individual or family therapy down the line. I hope, for her sake, that steps like those are all that need to be taken to resolve this.

Through all of this, it's important to remember that you're not obligated to save your friend. There will be a lot of this that is out of your control, and that can be incredibly disheartening when a friend is hurting and you want to help, but there are things you can do. You can offer to listen to her and help her find resources, and be there as support if she has to make tough phone calls. You and her other friends can also provide some relief from whatever is going on at home by inviting her out to activities or over to hang out so that she has space to feel safe and happy. If you end up supporting her in her attempts to change her situation, make sure you're building in enough time to take care of yourself. It's great when we're able to help out those we care about, but if we don't care for ourselves as well, we end up burnt out and unable to help anybody.

Hopefully this column has given you and her a starting place to figure out how to get her whatever help she may need. Ultimately, you may play a small role in the process, but even having one or two supportive friends when dealing with a toxic parent can be invaluable. I wish you both the best of luck.

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