Training A Survivor Of Domestic Violence

Clare Holzack helps fitpros understand the important considerations when training this special population.

Domestic and family violence will affect almost as many women as pelvic floor dysfunction, at least one in four women. Think about your current client base – would you know who is affected and who isn’t? Do you have the tools and information necessary to call it out when you see it? As part of our Women’s Health Mentorship, we were joined by a survivor of domestic violence (although she still has to manage interacting with her abuser to this day), to discuss the role of the Personal Trainer in this very common, but very taboo circumstance.

As a trainer, many years ago, I had a client who was venting to me in her session. As she revealed more about her home situation, I became more concerned for her safety. I regret to say that I did not handle it well. My comment was “if you tell me any more, I am going to have to call the police”. She had two young children with this man, and I had effectively gagged her. When I asked her how things were the week after, she brushed me off with “fine” and that was the end of it, until a few years later when he physically abused her, her mother, and her daughters when she tried to leave. She did eventually “get out”; she was lucky to have a home to run to in the form of her parents. To this day, she has to manage her interactions with him, share her children, and earn enough money to look after herself and her children on her own.

I remember this so clearly because I have run it over and over through my brain ever since. How could I have helped her? Is it enough just to listen and “be there”? Should I have kept the communication lines open even if it meant NOT calling the police in what was a very frightening situation? I am happy to say that we are still friends, and even though I didn’t have the tools and strategies back then, I sure as hell do now! And this is what I am going to share with you today! Domestic violence is behaviour that coerces, controls or causes a person to be afraid1. The abuse can happen in different ways, including emotional, psychological, physical, sexual, verbal, social, financial, spiritual, and harassment or stalking. Withdrawal of reproductive rights and forced marriage are also forms of domestic abuse. You do not need to be physically hurt to have experienced domestic and family violence. Domestic and family violence is often about a pattern of behaviour that causes fear2. This means, as long as your client is afraid, it is technically abuse.
Family violence is violence between family members, such as between parents and children, siblings, and intimate partners. Domestic violence is a type of family violence that occurs specifically between current or former intimate partners. It occurs across all socioeconomic, demographic and age groups, but predominantly affects women and children3. Domestic violence occurs primarily in heterosexual relationships from men towards women, however it does occur in reverse, as well as in homosexual and transgender relationships4. Domestic abuse manifests as one partner exerting control over the other. Since you only have access to one partner (presumably), you’re only getting one side of the story. Having said that, if your client reports being controlled – financially, emotionally, sexually, or in any other form, it is worth investigating further.

Your client will sometimes (but not always) show psychological signs including5, 6:

Physical signs of domestic abuse can include:

If they haven’t been physically harmed, symptoms can still be physical (e.g., In emotional abuse):

Remember, the behaviour is considered abusive if it elicits fear from the victim. This can occur without violence, but the victim is frightened. If you see signs of fear in their interactions or what they tell you about her home life, then you can help by guiding them to help on 1800RESPECT or 1800 737 732.

This line is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week via phone and online chat, and available for anyone experiencing domestic violence, seeking resources or information, or questioning unhealthy aspects of their relationship6. As their Trainer, you can call too, and get professional advice on what you are hearing from them.

Once you’ve investigated what you’re seeing with your client, you may feel more comfortable talking to them about it. Your role is not to counsel them, but help direct them to further resources such as 1800RESPECT.

If I were to do it all over again, rather than shutting down my client, effectively warning her not to tell me anything else, I would simply listen, and then call 1800RESPECT in my own time to get advice. I would then pass that number on to her as well, so she could talk to an appropriately qualified, informed counsellor who could direct her towards the best course of action for her situation.

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Clare Hozack

As Burrell Education’s Australia & NZ representative, Clare travels each month to deliver these internationally accredited courses to Personal Trainers. Clare has presented at FILEX and also the Women’s Health and Fitness Summit on Mummy Moves. Clare has two kids and understands the difficulties women face, particularly keeping their pelvic floor and mental health intact. She thoroughly enjoys delivering accessible and intelligent training to women who otherwise find themselves cut off from support in fitness.