Response-based practice

Home Truths: Rethinking Our Approach To Family Violence

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Whenever people are abused, they do many things to try and reduce, prevent or stop the abuse in some way. This is known as resistance and is based on the belief that whenever people are treated badly, they resist

(Wade 1997). It is about recognising people’s inherent ability to respond to adversity. Resistance can take many forms – from overtly standing up to a perpetrator, to small acts or thoughts that go unnoticed by others. These acts of resistance represent a victim’s efforts to resist, defy or strive against the abuse and their efforts to maintain their dignity.

Often acts of violence and acts of resistance are hidden. Focusing on a victim’s responses to adverse situations is known as response-based practice.  At  its  core,  a  response  based  approach  to  practice  is  about noticing how, in any given moment, a person exercises some caution, creativity,  deliberation  and  awareness  that  enables  them  to  handle  a difficult  situation. It is about interpreting these responses as forms of ‘resistance’ that victims use to keep hold of and reassert their dignity.

Key Response-based practice ideas:

  • Violent acts are unilateral: Violence is not mutual. It is the actions taken by one person against the will and well-being of another. Violence is also social. It is involves at least two people and is committed in a social situation
  • Dignity is central to social life: It is through our social interactions that we derive and develop our sense of identity, self-esteem and self worth. Violence is an affront to dignity. Even in extreme adversity, victims search for and find ways to maintain and assert their dignity
  • Violence is deliberate: perpetrators make a planned and deliberate choice to use violence against women and children. They anticipate and take steps to supress a victim’s resistance to their violence
  • Resistance is ever present: Whenever there is an act of violence there is a response. Whether in the behaviours or minds of a victim, these responses signify their resistance and defiance of the violence
  • Humans  are  responsive  and  active:  We  are  active  ‘agents’  not passive and affected ‘objects’. Resistance is a response to violence, not an effect or impact of violence
  • Social responses are crucial: The nature and quality of how people perceive and respond to us contributes to our sense of worth and dignity. Victims of violence respond physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually to the positive or negative response they receive from others.

Why is resistance important to our work?

Paying attention to responses and acts of resistance is important because:

  • It is useful for a victim’s self-esteem, their sense of power and self- worth for them to think about what they did to oppose the abuse. Examining their resistance to violence can help victims resolve any feelings they have of being responsible for the abuse
  • Women and children who have been abused may find it more comfortable and safe to talk about what they did in a response to violence rather than what was done to them
  • When we look at how women and children respond to and resist violence  we  immediately  see  their  existing  capacities,  their knowledge, skills and their strength of spirit. We are drawn to the ways they assert their independence and resist the violence. These strengths and capacities are the foundations of our conversations, planning and relationships with women and children
  • It helps us and others to see women and children as active and responding agents rather than being passive victims of abuse
  • Accounts   of   resistance   reveal   pre-existing   abilities,   emergent capacities and feelings or acts of despair, determination, love or fear. Such responses inspire us to empathise and work in solidarity with women and children. It shifts our focus from working “on” to working “with” and “for” mothers, children and families
  • A  history  of  resistance  is  accompanied  by  a  history  of  violence.
  • Exploring the multiple points in time when a woman or child has resisted abuse makes visible the multiple and deliberate tactics used by the perpetrator to supress and control a victim’s resistance. It provides us with an accurate and detailed description of the violence and victims responses. Response-based practice is not just about being positive and strengths based-it is about being accurate. This is vital to effective planning and our work with women, children and perpetrators.

Types of resistance

The resistance strategies available to women and children depends on such things as their culture, ethnicity, age, class or sexuality.   Victims usually resist in ways that are not obvious to the perpetrator or onlookers. Victims may choose not to talk about the abuse to keep safe or avoid negative judgement by others. At other times, victims may gauge it safe to overtly oppose the violence. Overtime, women and children engage in both covert and overt acts of resistance that allows them to experience a sense of accomplishment

In being blind to a victim’s resistance, some people assume that victims have  not  done  enough  to  protect  themselves,  believe  that  the  victim creates their own misfortune or that the victim is in someway responsible for the abuse.  Examples of how resistance can be misinterpreted are:



Not showing emotions

Emotionally detachment, avoidance

Not doing what the perpetrator wanted

Passive aggressive, un-cooperative

Doing nice things for perpetrators


Children agreeing with dads view of mums

Colluding with violent father

Some  examples  of  a  victim’s  resistance  to  a  perpetrators  abuse  are included in the table below.

Perpetrator Actions

Victims resistance

Isolation of victim

Attempts to maintain friendships: physically or via phone or

social media when he is out or asleep


Remembering good times with friends

Attempts to humiliate the victim

Thinking or acting in ways that helps maintain self-respect and

feelings of self-worth.


Holding her head up high. Privately hating the victim

Attempts to control the victim

Acting in a way that shows she refuses to be controlled -doing

the opposite of what the perpetrator wants or likes


Doing what the perpetrator wants her to do in a very dramatic



Quietly disregarding instructions


Finding ways to get out of the house and escape control

Attempts to mutualise the


Refusal to respond to or accept statements such as conflict,



Ringing the police after being abused


Showering after sexual abuse

Makes excuses for the violence

Thinking or acting in ways that show for herself that there is no

excuse for the victim or that the abuse is wrong


Knowing and thinking that she did not deserve the abuse, it

was wrong, the perpetrator is fully responsible


Refusal to accept a perpetrators view of himself as gentle,



Telling others about the abuse


Refusing to stay at home and hide physical evidence of the



Refusing to wear glasses or makeup to cover up abuse

If the perpetrator tries to hurt

the victim

Doing things to reduce, ensure or escape the pain


Numbing their feelings when they are abused, taking her mind

to a peaceful place


A child might interrupt –say he is feeling sick to stop the



A child might take his siblings for a walk or into their room to

protect them from violence


Refusing to show emotional vulnerability , privately hating the


Social Responses

The term “social responses” refers to the responses of others to the individuals faced with adversity including violence. These responses are provided by:

  • people in a victim’s social network or those present during an assault
  • members of institutions charged with responding (child protection, police, judges)
  • others whose actions influence societal standards (law, policy, media, curriculum) or norms (racism, homophobia)
  • conditions  (geographic  isolation,  poverty)  that  enable  or  prevent violence and that limit or promote justice and individual freedoms.

Victims of violence respond physically, emotionally, mentally, socially and spiritually to positive or negative social responses.

Victims who receive positive social responses:

  • tend to recover more quickly and fully
  • are more likely to work with authorities
  • are more likely to report violence in the future.

Victims who receive negative social responses:

  • are less likely to co-operate with authorities
  • are less likely to disclose violence again
  • are more likely to receive a diagnosis of mental disorder.

Putting response and resistance into our practice

Response based practice involves changing our mindset, our language and the way we engage with, understand and respond to women and children experiencing violence. Some ways we put into our practice include:

  • Listening for and identifying acts of resistance. Women and children may not conceptualise or see what they do as acts of resistance. It involves careful questioning that enables women and children to explore the meanings they attach to their responses
  • Asking  questions  or  prompts  that  may  help  unearth  resistance including:
  • What  did  you  do?  How  did  you  do  that?  What  kind  of expression was on your face? Did you feel like you could do something?   What went through your mind? What did the perpetrator do next? Again, how did you respond?
  • What  is  it  like  for  you  to  think  about  your  response  as resistance? What do you think about that?
  • Have you talked with anyone about the violence? How did they respond? How did that make you feel? Does anyone know you feel or act like that? What do they say and do when you tell them?
  • Get information about the context-where were you? Who else was there? What did you do? What did others do? What else was happening at the time? What did they say to you? What was their body language like?
  • Remembering to appreciate and communicate to victims the resourcefulness and ingenuity of their acts of resistance
  • Recognising that processing responses as acts of resistance may take time for both victims and practitioners. It is important to pace the conversations and allow time and space for victims to make sense of their responses. Reflective pauses and silence in conversations is OK
  • 'Honouring’ acts of resistance – this does not mean downplaying risk or romanticising resistance –not all acts of resistance are strengths based. If a woman or child’s resistance places them at higher risk or is harmful, encourage and support them to use other forms of resistance and ways to maintain or expand their dignity and control of her life
  • Remembering that how we talk and what we write matters. Tell it like it  is and make explicit who is responsible for the violence. Avoid language that mutualises the violence or constructs women and children as passive objects that have been “affected” or “impacted” by violence
  • Get an accurate and detailed picture of the patterns of abuse and the patterns of resistance to that abuse. Descriptions of resistance reveal who a person is and what they stand for–we see them for what they can do not what has been done to them
  • Think about the types of things you do as a professional to uphold the dignity of victims and perpetrators. Some simple ways you can do this include:
  • Showing  your  respect  by  being  courteous,  communicating regularly and using the language of the family
  • Taking time to listen to and reflect on what women, children and perpetrators say and thanking them for sharing their stories
  • Appreciate a mother’s efforts and capacity to parent in the face of violence.  Likewise  recognise  a  child’s  efforts  to  keep themselves and others safe
  • Making sure women and children know they are not responsible for the violence. The abuse is not because of something they did or said
  • Treat men as capable human beings who have all the skills, knowledge and ability to not use violence. Engage with him around times when he did not use violence, his hopes for his children and himself
  • Listen and take seriously where mothers and children are at and what they think will make things better.
  • Children can and want to talk about their experience of violence.

When using the Three Houses tool (Weld& Greening2004), think about adding in the “rickety response-based shed”.  Ask children what is good, what their dreams are and what worries them. Then ask them what they do about the things that worry them. This illuminates and fills the rickety response shed with their ideas, capacities and courage that keeps them safe. Such information can drive interventions designed to help children recover from the effects of violence   once   they  are   in   a   safe   secure   and   violence   free environment.

To hear more about response based practice watch Allan’s presentation at here.


Wade. A. (1997) Small Acts of Living: Everyday resistance to violence and other forms of oppression. Contemporary Family Therapy 19 (1) March 1997 pg. 23:39.

Weld, N and Greening M. (2008) The Three Houses. Social Work Now Dec 2004. Pg 34:37.