Active Bystanding in Families: How To Approach It

Categories: Misc


Without safety, without happiness, without trust, without love, ‘family’ is but a shell.

Last week we talked about active bystanding in families and the uncertainty it can create. We explored the prospect of what we may have to lose when we confront child sexual abuse or boundary violations in a family and why on earth we would do it. We sought that which was even more valuable than family cohesion, security, history, and tradition.

And we discovered that it was perhaps on behalf of family unity and family well-being that we protect a child. Or that maybe it is as simple as love for that one child.

Having come this far we still are faced with the question, What do we actually DO? And I promised some guidelines, for which I’ll do my best.

There are two basic kinds of interventions that a bystander can make. One is spontaneous and the other is planned.

In a spontaneous intervention, we see an interaction with a child that seems risky or we have a gut feeling and we act to protect the child right on the spot. And keep in mind, spontaneous interventions can be made even when it’s not about full-blown suspicion. For example, I was at a family Christmas party and was sent by the host to the basement freezer for ice cream. There I found an older teen family member with a very young cousin alone, hanging out. There was no gut feeling of a boundary violation, and all seemed well, but still the two were isolated. I said, “Hey guys, how about coming upstairs with the others. It’s ok to bring the toys.” And I waited for the boys to precede me up the stairs. Pretty simple. Later I told the mother of the younger child, “I found ‘Jason’ downstairs alone with ‘Alex’, so I asked them to come on up.” And then I moved on.

Bystander Intervention

I don’t know – is that weird? Over zealous? Could be. But I know the facts, and the fact is that 40% of children who are sexually abused are abused by older youth. And that many times that older youth is a family member. Besides, I like finding simple ways to nudge adults toward awareness. Family or not. I’m serious about reducing the 1 in 10 rate of children suffering sexual abuse, and as much as it makes me squirm I’m not blind to the possibility it could happen in my family.

No accusation, no big lecture. But still, awareness. Proactive. No big deal.

But what if the mother had asked me, “Why’d you do that?” Gulp.  That’s not what happened, but I like to think I’d say something like, “Well as a general rule I think teens shouldn’t be isolated with small children, especially when there are other options.” It’s easy to say now in a blog, but ideally yeah, I’d use the word “teens” and “isolated” to make my point. Would she press me further? In my family, that wouldn’t happen. There’s kind of an all-for-one attitude and people don’t invite open conflict. But that’s not every family.  She could’ve said, “Well, what do you think would happen?”

And I think this is where the rubber meets the road. This is definitely what we’re all anticipating – that somehow even in the smallest intervention someone is going to put us over the barrel, or we’re going to be pinned to the wall.

It depends on how bold you want to be frankly. You could take the high road and say, “I’m trying to teach the little kids in our family (or “my kid” as the case may be) by example that they shouldn’t be in isolated, one-on-one situations since that’s risky for abuse.  t’s not about Alex doing anything wrong. He was behaving fine down there. It’s just about setting the example for both of them.” Because hey, you were pressed and now you may as well be relatively direct. If you’re indirect at this point, the person will think you’re making a veiled accusation and that’s no good.

Or you could really get right out there with it, which I don’t recommend necessarily in this fairly innocent situation. But you could say, “I learned that 80% of sexual abuse happens in isolated one-on-one situations, so why chance it?” You can see how inflammatory that could be, given the actual circumstances.

The point is you have to know who your with. What’s your relationship? What’s the level of risk in the situation you’re in? Has a personal boundary been crossed? These are factors in how we intervene and what we say. My recommendation: start with diplomacy and be reasonably straight about. Kind.But straight. And by straight I mean, say what you mean because otherwise it’s going to get screwy.

Now what about situations where a boundary violation is more dubious, more constant, or more “icky?” Or when a child is clearly showing serious signs of distress and no one seems to be doing anything about it?

By now people know what I do for a living so I can be at a party and someone will bring up a child they’re concerned about. Recently I was at a birthday party and a friend, who is a special education teacher, told me about a little 6-year-old girl in her family who was recently diagnosed with autism. My friend, who is quite astute, was super concerned because the little girl was urinating and defecating and playing in it, was fearful, having outbursts, head banging, the works. All of this started happening shortly after the child’s mother remarried and the new husband’s 12-year-old son came to live with them.

Frankly, my friend thought the diagnosis was wrong and that the child was possibly being sexually abused in the home. She’s a professional and she knows that autism doesn’t usually just spring up overnight. She also knows the signs of sexual abuse, and this child had a bundle of them.

Now THIS is the kind of situation that really scares us. Now you see why we had to make a conscious choice in last week’s article whether we are going to do anything or not. And for what higher purpose.  It’s not a walk in the park.

It’s easy for me to say from the safety of my keyboard, but here are some guidelines to consider. And before I even list them, please don’t treat them as gospel. Evaluate what I’m suggesting and see if it fits given your assessment of the situation you’re in. These are ideas, not musts.

In my view this kind of example should fall into the category of a planned intervention. Some or all of these will apply.

  • Realize and accept that you are going to have to take some risks. You’re going to have to stay calm when you want to freak out, and you’re going to have to anchor yourself in non-judgment.
  • Realize that the whole situation cannot be resolved overnight. It will take time to get wholly to the other side.
  • Consider first, based on all the facts and your gut instinct, whether you need to move straight to making a report. If you believe the child is in danger, you have to report. In many states, it’s the law. As an example, my friend above made a report as her very first intervention because she suspected sexual abuse in the child’s immediate environment. She didn’t know for sure, but she suspected it. She called Children’s Protective Services in the county where the child lives.
  • And I’m serious about this. Call the Darkness to Light Helpline at 866-FOR-LIGHT. They can help you create a plan and think of things you might not otherwise think of.
  • Choose someone in the family you trust who knows everyone involved. Not a gaggle of people. A couple of people maybe. This is about partnership and support, not gossip or high drama. Make sure that the person you choose also understands the intent to be calm and deliberate.
  • Share your concerns with this trusted family member(s). Stick to the facts.
  • Together create a plan of approach.
  • Consider who is in the best position to protect the child. Is it a parent? Do you need professional help? This is probably the person you should both talk to next. These people should be involved in all the next steps because they are the person who can enforce the boundaries.
  • When talking to either the caregiver or the person whom you suspect is abusing:
    • Express that you care about them. Express that you love and care about the child.
    • Tell the person what you’ve seen in the child that concerns you AND/OR
    • Describe the boundary violations you’re concerned about. Describe the behaviors.
    • Share your gut instinct about the situation. Don’t accuse. Share what makes you uncomfortable.
    • Offer something positive about the person you are speaking to. If it’s the parent, share what you know of him/her that’s good. If it’s the one violating boundaries, share something positive about him or her if it’s authentic.
    • If you are speaking to the person who has crossed boundaries, do not allow them to minimize or make excuses. Reiterate that behaviors are not acceptable.
    • Set very specific limits and boundaries. Disallow contact with the child if necessary.
  • Be willing to have more than one conversation. In fact, it’s almost a certainty you’ll need to address this over time.
  • Afterward, write down everything you talked about – your concerns and the other participants’ responses, including the one who has violated the boundary. Stick to the facts.
  • Always protect your own safety. If one of the parties has a tendency toward violence, or is chronically abusing substances, you probably can’t have a conversation at all. You may need to move straight to making a report. Or you may just need to ban them from contact with the child if that’s possible, without a conversation. Make sure others in the family know there’s been a decision to disallow contact. You can’t be with the child at every moment.
  • After the first conversation, reconsider making a report. If you suspect the child is in danger, or if there has been any waffling at all in the conversation, or if you feel unclear at all that boundaries will be upheld, you need to report it.
  • Talk with the child, or ask the care-giving adult to do so. Visit the Darkness to Light website for tips about this.
  • If the child has been showing signs of sexual abuse, consider counseling. Take the child to a Children’s Advocacy Center in the county where the child lives. Google “Children’s Advocacy Center [Your County Name]” to find one.

Remember these are guidelines. Every situation is different and requires a unique approach. The one universal dynamic is the need for courage. I’d love to hear the experiences you’ve had, and what you suggest also. I think we can’t be too creative or too bold about how we work with the unique situations out there. Constructive dialogue helps everyone! Please join in with your thoughts.

[If you suspect a child is in immediate danger call children’s protective services or the police. If you have a question about a possible boundary violation call 866-FOR-LIGHT.]


Paula Sellars is Executive Vice President of Phoenix Possibilities Inc., a company that fosters social change and leadership through the skills of personal risk. Formerly a family therapist and cranio-sacral therapist, Paula specialized in family systems, adolescence, and trauma recovery. She designed and executed program content for an adolescent day treatment center, worked in supervisory capacities inpatient and outpatient psychiatric settings, and has worked extensively with families with sexual abuse dynamics. Paula is the author of Darkness to Light’s Stewards of Children®, a child sexual abuse prevention Docutraining® that uses consciousness training to effect behavior change. As a consciousness trainer with Phoenix Possibilities, Paula teaches the Cliff Jumping® Program and other leadership development programs for individuals, couples, and organizational groups. As a social change agent, she weaves her knowledge of the Enneagram, Spiral Dynamics and the Cliff Jumping Program to move communities to action. She is also a Oneness Blessing Giver through Oneness University in Chennai, India. Paula inspires vitality, spiritual connection, integrity and personal fulfillment.




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