Understanding and Addressing Abuse

Table of Contents

Recognizing Abuse

Abuse is a situation in which a person is treated in a way that is harmful to them. Abuse can occur to anyone of any age and gender and from any walk of life. It can include physical battery, emotional abuse, psychological abuse, financial abuse or exploitation, sexual abuse, and child or elder neglect or abandonment. If you or someone you know is being abused, it's important to seek support and help.

For college students, two common kinds of abuse experienced are partner abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, or psychological abuse by a romantic or sexual partner) and sexual assault, which may be perpetrated by a romantic partner, friend, acquaintance, or stranger. Students may also experience physical or emotional abuse perpetrated by someone besides a partner, such as a family member, roommate, or friend, and students may come to college with a history of being abused by a family member or other person.

There are many signs of an abusive relationship. The most telling sign is fear of the other person. If you feel like you have to "walk on eggshells" around them—constantly watching what you say and do to avoid a blow-up—chances are the relationship is unhealthy and abusive. Other signs that you may be in an abusive relationship include a pattern of the other person ridiculing or controlling you and you frequently feeling trapped, helpless, and desperate; you may also feel bad about yourself and confused about whether the abuse is your fault. Specific forms of abuse are physical (doing things to you that cause pain and/or injury, damaging or destroying your property, harming your child or pet, harming themself as a way to control you), emotional/psychological (blaming you for things that aren't your fault [including their abusive behavior], threatening to cause harm to you or a person or pet you care about, threatening to injure or kill themself if you don't do what they want, yelling at you, humiliating or ridiculing you, treating you so badly you are embarassed for others to see/know, acting excessively jealous or suspicious, controlling your behavior and/or appearance, isolating you from other people), and sexual (forcing, tricking, or coercing you into sexual activity when you don't want it; having sexual activity with you when you are not able to consent, such as when you are very drunk).

People who are being abused may be referred to as victims or survivors. Both terms (as well as "someone being abused") are used on this page.

It's important to remember that abuse is the abuser's fault. While the abuser may have problems that contribute to their behavior, they still have a choice in how they behave and whether to seek help to address their problems. Even if someone does things that annoy or anger someone else, that is not an excuse for abuse. The abuser is responsible for how they handle their feelings—feeling angry or irritated is not an acceptable reason to act out or harm someone else. It's common for people being abused to blame themselves or to get caught up in trying to understand or help the abuser rather than helping themselves or leaving the relationship. Being isolated from people outside the abusive relationship can contribute to these feelings.

It's also typical for abuse to escalate over time: Less serious forms of abuse such as shoving or grabbing often progress to hitting, kicking, and worse. A common cycle is that after abuse occurs, the abuser may feel guilty and use excuses or try to "make up for" the abuse by being nicer than usual. Things may seem OK for a while, and it's common for the abuser to promise it won't happen again, but unless the abuser gets help and/or takes significant steps to change (e.g., getting treatment, ceasing abuse of alcohol or another drug) or the victim leaves the relationship, it's unlikely things will change. Abusers often deny they have a problem, blame others for their problems, and avoid seeking help unless there is some consequence to their behavior.

College students may witness others being abused, be told about abuse, or suspect abuse is happening to someone they know. When abuse is happening to a minor (anyone younger than 18), elder (anyone older than 65), or dependent adult (anyone unable to care for themselves, such as because of serious physical or mental disabilities), there are reporting laws that may make it necessary for certain people, known as mandated reporters, to contact the authorities and/or social service agencies. CAPS counselors are mandated reporters. Abuse of a non-dependent adult ages 18 to 65 is not something CAPS is required to report. See Legal Considerations for more information.

Child abuse may include physical, emotional, psychological, or sexual abuse or neglect or abandonment. Signs include unexplained physical injuries (e.g., bruises, burns, broken bones), unusual fearfulness, unusual shyness or aversion to physical contact, regressive behaviors (e.g., an older child thumb-sucking or bed-wetting), unusual or inappropriate interest in sexual activities, and other changes in appearance or behavior. The U.S. government has created a helpful fact sheet about child abuse.

Elder or dependent adult abuse may include physical, emotional, psychological, or sexual abuse; financial abuse or exploitation; or neglect or abandonment. Signs of elder or dependent adult abuse include unexplained injuries, frequent arguments between the adult and their caregiver, signs of being restrained (such as marks on the wrists), changes in or problems with the person's hygiene or appearance, regressive behaviors (e.g., thumb-sucking), and sudden changes in the person's financial situation. HelpGuide.org provides some info and tips about elder abuse and neglect.

Legal Considerations

Although some forms of abuse of an independent adult between ages 18 and 65 may be considered a crime (depending on the specific type and level of abuse), abuse of an independent adult is not "reportable" by CAPS, meaning that CAPS staff are not legally obligated to inform the authorities or a government agency that addresses abuse. (This may not be the case if you tell a medical clinician at the Student Health Center or an off-campus doctor's office or agency: Most medical personnel are legally mandated to report certain types of abuse.) CAPS IS legally required to report the abuse (or potential abuse that is likely to happen) of anyone younger than 18 or older than 65 and dependent adults (those unable to care for themselves because of serious physical or cognitive/mental disabilities). In these situations, the CAPS counselor is a mandated reporter and must call the appropriate agency (depending on whether the victim is a child or an adult) to consult and, if warranted, file a report, which may result in the agency initiating an investigation.

When it comes to child abuse, California state law requires that doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, counselors, and other community professionals who have special working relationships with children report any suspected abuse. However, anyone who becomes aware of child abuse can report it. To read more about child abuse reporting and laws, see the Santa Cruz County Child Protective Services website.

Regarding the abuse of elderly or dependent adults, California state law requires that any individual who is an elder or dependent adult care custodian must report any actual or suspected abuse. A care custodian is a person providing any level or type of care or services to the elderly and dependent adults. However, anyone who becomes aware of this sort of abuse can report it. To read more about elder or dependent adult abuse reporting and laws, see the Santa Cruz County Adult Protective Services website.

Addressing Abuse in Self or Others


It can be difficult to leave an abusive situation or relationship. Sometimes, a survivor of abuse is financially dependent on the abuser. In other cases, the abuse has contributed to the victim feeling emotionally dependent on the abuser and/or confused and conflicted about their role in the abuse. In many cases, the victim has conflicting feelings toward the abuser so feels unsure about whether they want to leave. If you are in an abusive situation, seek support and help from someone you trust. This may be a friend, family member, clergy person, mentor, or counselor. Abuse that is secret is more likely to continue than abuse that is made known to others. Talking about your situation can help you clarify your feelings about the relationship and decide to end it if needed. There are also resources available on and off campus to help you address related issues, such as finances and living situation. Some helpful resources are listed on the website of Monarch Services. See below for more resources.

Preparing to Leave

If you live with and/or spend most of your time with your abuser, there are some specific things you can do to help yourself prepare to get away from the situation. Keep emergency numbers, including a domestic violence hotline (such as Monarch Services or Walnut Avenue Family & Women's Center), handy (and hidden); keep a small bag of clothes and necessities packed and hidden in case you need to leave suddenly; and make sure you have access to a phone that is not monitored by the abuser. Plan ahead so that you know of at least one friend or relative with whom you could stay if needed, or look into local emergency shelters.

Helping a Friend

If you believe someone you know is being abused, talk to them privately to express your concerns and offer help. Here are some tips:

  • Find a safe and private place to talk where there are few distractions.
  • Express concerns based on what you have observed (e.g., "I noticed you have a black eye, and I'm worried about you" or "I heard X yelling at you, and it made me concerned about you").
  • Ask if something is wrong. You may wish to ask directly if the person is being hurt or otherwise abused.
  • Actively listen to the person (e.g., let them talk; nod or use other nonverbal cues to show you are listening; repeat things they said to show you heard and understand).
  • Express that you care about and empathize with the person, even if you can't relate to their situation.
  • Don't jump in with opinions or advice right away.
  • Offer resources or other help (e.g., emotional support, a place to stay, a ride to an appointment) if appropriate.
  • Don't pressure, judge, or try to control the situation: Respect the other person's decisions and readiness to change. They may not be ready to seek help yet.
  • Check in with the person again in the future; don't wait for them to come to you.

Getting Help if You Are the Abuser

People may have emotional or mental health issues that make it difficult for them to handle anger, disappointment, sadness, or other difficult feelings. They may have grown up in abusive, neglectful, or chaotic environments that made it hard to know how to handle strong emotions. Some people were not taught how to communicate in healthy ways. Others may have distorted assumptions and expectations about how others "should" act or relate to them. While having trouble managing emotions and anger or lacking good communication skills may be understandable, these are not excuses to abuse or mistreat others.

The first step to getting help is recognizing that you need it. Perhaps you aren't sure if your behavior is abusive, but you have gotten in trouble or have been told by others that you have a problem. Maybe you recognize that your actions are causing harm and you want to change. In any of these scenarios, it's important to seek professional help. While there are self-help websites, books, and apps on anger management that can be useful (including CAPS' anger handout), it can be tough to change on your own. A counselor can help you develop skills to better manage your feelings and communicate more effectively with others. It may also help to talk to someone you trust and respect, such as a family member, mentor, or clergy person.


If you or someone you know is a survivor of abuse, assault, stalking, or harassment and needs more information, assistance, or referrals, contact UCSC's CARE Office, CAPS, or local agencies Monarch Services or Walnut Avenue Family & Women's Center. The UCSC Women's Center website has some additional helpful campus and community resources for domestic violence and sexual abuse and assault, and the Cantu Center has resources specifically for queer and trans students.

Local agency New View Learning Center has voluntary and court-mandated classes on anger management and other resources for individuals, couples, and families, and ALTO (a branch of local agency Encompass) offers a domestic violence program for court-mandated cases. CAPS can also help you find an off-campus therapist who specializes in anger management or related issues.