Be an Active Bystander – A guide to helping when you see family violence and abuse

Know how to act when you witness a situation of abuse or unacceptable behaviour, whether the person experiencing violence is your friend, a neighbour or a total stranger.

What does being an active bystander mean?

In the context of family violence, being an active bystander means taking action when you see or hear violence, abuse or unacceptable behaviour by one individual towards another. You can choose to do something when an incident is occurring or after, depending on the situation and what the safest course of action is.

Family violence is an issue that affects everyone, and can occur in any relationship and in any community – including within LGBTIQA and CALD communities and to people with disabilities and people from all socio-economic groups. We all have the responsibility to take action to stop family violence by stepping up and speaking out. Acknowledging that someone’s behaviour is unacceptable, whether a close friend or a stranger, is a powerful thing to do, and could make a potentially life-saving difference to a person experiencing family violence.


Be educated

It’s hard to be an active bystander and intervene in a situation if you can’t recognise that abuse or violence is occurring in the first place. Be sure you understand what is and isn’t abusive behaviour, and recognise signs that indicate someone might be experiencing violence. For more information check out these pages:

How can you be an active bystander?

When you see an incident occurring remember the three R’s – recognise, respond and refer.

Recognise – Is abuse or unacceptable behaviour occurring? If so, it’s time to respond.

Respond – How you might respond will depend on the particular situation. The most important thing to remember is to act safely. Never put yourself in a situation where you are in danger, or where you will be placing other individuals in danger. If you feel unsafe actively intervening, call the police on 000.

Refer – Let the person experiencing abuse know that support services – such as the safe steps 24/7 phone line, 1800RESPECT and others – are available if they need practical or emotional assistance. It is best to do this privately, one-on-one.

Some scenarios

Here are a few examples of situations and how you could best handle them…

You’re having lunch with your friends and one of them is being disrespectful to their partner over the phone

  • Call them out: Don’t let your friend’s behaviour slide just because they are your friend.
  • Explain: Let them know that speaking to their partner in a disrespectful way is not ok and not part of a normal, healthy relationship. You could also share some information with them about emotional abuse and other types of abuse.
  • Reach out: If your friend continues acting this way, you could reach out to their partner to make sure they are ok and let them know assistance is available from safe steps and other support services if they need help.

You’re at a party and you notice your friend’s partner getting really angry and starting to yell at her

  • Assess the situation: Make sure everyone involved is safe. If the situation looks like it could become dangerous alert a few others and act together.
  • Defuse: Try to defuse the situation in a safe way, perhaps by calling out your friend’s name and gesturing for her to come over to you.
  • Discreetly talk to your friend about it: Find a safe place to speak to your friend separately from her partner. Let her know you saw what was happening and that how her partner was behaving was unacceptable. Make it clear that you want to make sure she is ok and that she isn’t being mistreated.
  • Listen: If your friend wants to talk, listen without judgement or criticism. For more info on how to support a friend or family member experiencing family violence click here.
  • Help: Let your friend know you are here to help however you can and will always be happy to listen and support her. It might be useful to share some information about family violence with her and let her know about safe steps and other support services.
  • Follow up: Make sure to check in on your friend to make sure she is safe. Your friend may have down-played the situation or been unwilling to talk at the party so you could follow up a day or two later and reiterate that if she ever needs help or wants to talk you are there for her.

You hear loud yelling and noises coming from your neighbours’ house, it sounds like a potentially violent situation

  • Call the Police: Phone 000 immediately and report what you are hearing. DO NOT go over to the house as that may place you in danger or escalate the situation for the person experiencing the violence.
  • Reach out: Try to speak to the person experiencing the violence when the perpetrator is not there, let them know that safe steps can help them and offer to let them use your computer or phone if they need to ring the safe steps 24/7 phone line on 1800 015 188.

You can see a man and a woman on the street having what looks like a tense conversation. The woman looks scared and like she’s trying to leave the conversation but the man grabs her arm so she can’t walk away

  • Stay safe: Don’t take any action that will put yourself or the woman in danger.
  • Watch: just observing the situation may be enough to discourage the perpetrator from becoming more violent.
  • Distract and diffuse: If you feel safe doing so, try to create a distraction to diffuse the situation. You could interrupt them to ask for directions, say hello to the woman and pretend you met her the other day at a party, etc. Try to give her an excuse to leave the conversation.
  • Get others involved: It’s always safer to intervene in a potentially volatile situation with others backing you up.
  • Reach out: Once the woman is away from the perpetrator, check if she is ok, ask who the man was and if she needs help. If she does, be sure to let her know about the safe steps 24/7 phone line and other support services.

Looking for more information on assisting someone experiencing family violence? Try our Information for friends and family or Information for employers pages. If you are concerned that someone you know is experiencing family violence, you can also call safe steps 24/7 on 1800 015 188 to speak to a specialist Support Worker about the best ways you can help the individual experiencing family violence.