Active Bystanding In Families

Categories: Guest Blog, Misc

There comes a time in your growth when you start making choices from a very different place. And if a choice lines up so that it supports truth, health, happiness, wisdom and love, it’s the right choice.

Angeles Arrien, Cultural Anthropologist

Over the past couple of weeks we’ve been discussing Active Bystanding, and we’ve framed it as two types of bystander action – bystander prevention and bystander intervention. Bystander prevention is getting way out ahead of a boundary violation by talking with kids about their personal boundaries and putting safe structures and rules in place in their environments. Bystander prevention is proactive. Bystander intervention is getting actively involved in a situation in which boundaries have become fuzzy and concerning, or in which a child is being abused or is in danger of abuse. Bystander intervention in that sense is reactive. Boundaries have already been crossed. In either case though, the bystander is active and advocating for children.

We’ve had a lot of reader questions and comments on the topic and that’s exciting. We’ve learned from these comments that a lot of us have great awareness and a really good gut sense of safe boundaries. And that a lot of us have a healthy amount of internal “uh oh” when something goes off track. Where we all get into difficulty, me included, is in the arena of what to do when we see boundary violations that sound the alarm bells or give us a creeping suspicion. And not surprisingly, we got the most questions in the category of, “What do I do if I suspect someone in my own family?”

Listen to Sylvia’s survivor story to better understand what happens to a child and later the adult who has no intervention within the family. Hear to her firsthand reasons for coming forward about family sexual abuse. She’s an amazing voice of courage and wisdom. She’s an advocate today. A beautiful sharing and a momentous recovery.

I’m going to tell you the honest truth. I can be kind of rough on people when it comes to child protection. I don’t say it right out loud, but inside myself I can get pretty righteous and maybe even a bit unrealistic. When I first got those questions I said to myself, “What the heck? You do the same darn things to protect the child as you would in any other situation!”

But then I stepped back and considered my own family. I especially considered what family provides me, and the prospect of losing those things. I really considered, “What makes it so hard to intervene in sexual abuse or suspicion of it in families?”

I’ll tell you what my family provides me – and here I’m talking about my extended family.  Not just my parents and my brother, but also my aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, both sides. My family loves me. Of this I have no doubt. My grandmother used to always say, “Help each other.” That was her mantra. My family has my back. When my father was dying, family literally kept my mom, my brother and me afloat. On holidays I have somewhere to go where people will care what I am doing and believe in me. I’ve never needed to borrow money, been sick or without a home. But if I was, I know somebody would shore me up till I could get going again. I would do the same for them.  In my family I am not judged. I am valued. My family laughs at my jokes. They get me. I fit with themWe have shared stories and continuity. And this has been present my whole life. I’ve moved, left schools, relationships, jobs. Family is the constant.

I need all of this for sure. Sometimes more than I realize. But the thing that really stops me when I think about having to confront sexual abuse in my own family would be damaging that safety and continuity for other members. I have this tough attitude that I can deal with most anything. Alone if I have to. That’s a silly attitude I have with myself. Maybe my heart is softer for others than for myself. But the thing that would really trip me up on bystander intervention would be ruining that cohesion, that love and loyalty, for others in my family who also need it.

Because when we confront sexual abuse in a family, we put everyone out on a limb. Deep down we know that’s true, because we can’t control others reaction to the concerns we express or the actions we take. We potentially disrupt cohesion, safety, security, tradition – it’s a huge risk. And if the boundary violation is truly damaging to the child, and a lot of people get involved in dealing with it, we can’t really put that genie back in the bottle.

The true enemy of active bystanding in a family is the uncertainty it creates. The potential loss of love and security.

Yet notice that we’ve gotten this far without even considering the wellbeing of the child, or the now troubled adult in our family who had no intervention as a child and is still floundering.

What about that child? That’s the question that begs for an answer.

I think to get to an answer we have to connect to the child’s innocence. Her reliance on us.  His vulnerability. Not only do we have to play the part of the responsive adult, but we also have to tether ourselves to a higher intention – one that transcends even family unity.

I think we have to come to a place in our growth that recognizes that what harms one harms all. And that the hurting doesn’t stop, even across generations, until someone has the courage to stand up.

Maybe it’s on behalf of family unity that we protect a child.

Or maybe it’s just simply for the love of that one child.

I think Angeles Arrien expresses it well. She says:

There comes a time in your growth when you start making choices from a very different place. And if a choice lines up so that it supports truth, health, happiness, wisdom and love, it’s the right choice.

In choosing to protect a child we hold our intentions as the measuring stick. Truth. Health. Happiness. Wisdom. Love. We hold these over time for the welfare of that child but also for all of our family members. And we’re willing to go the distance for them.

I know that doesn’t answer the question, what do I actually DO? But I think first we have to really choose definitively IF we are going to do something at all, and what that means to us. And why on earth we would do it.

So for now, that’s what I want to hear from you. Why on earth would you do it? Especially survivors and families of survivors – we should especially hear from you.

Next week I’ll offer some basic practical guidelines for bystander intervention in families.

[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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