Active Bystanding: It’s a Jungle Out There! – Part 2

Categories: Guest Blog, Take Two For Prevention


As part of our Two Minutes for Prevention series, Stewards of Children® author Paula Sellars provides additional insights and experience about the topic covered in the video below.

Last week we explored Greta’s story as a great example of Bystander Prevention.

We said that Bystander Prevention is getting way out ahead of any harm to a child by being alert to potential boundary violations and grooming, and essentially heading them off at the pass. Bystander Prevention is doing Steps 1, 2 and 3 of The 5 Steps to Protecting Our Children. It’s “primary prevention” – doing stuff that keeps our kids from being groomed or abused in the first place.

Today let’s move on to what the Darkness to Light team is calling Bystander Intervention. And this time I’ll tell a story of my own. Remember, it’s a jungle out there, and there’s not always a straight path.

One fine summer morning my partner and I went to the big farmers market at our local university. We go there just about every Saturday to get our supplies for the week. I love the farmers market. First of all, it’s on Saturday morning so everyone is relaxed and jovial. We’re just at the beginning of a lazy summer weekend. We’re buying fun food, and maybe friends are coming for dinner. Some live music is playing, the dogs are trotting by on their leashes and little kids are toddling around with their parents. No one is rushing and there’s a real sense of community. When I go to the farmers market I feel that life and relationships are as they should be. And I bet a lot of other people feel that warmth too.

We buy most of our produce from a particular vendor that we like. I’ll call him James. He is a wonderful person and he practices solid ethics at his farm. We’re not the kind of friends that go places together, but we see him and his family every week. That Saturday morning we were in their booth at the same time as this other fellow who was obviously a family friend. You could tell they knew each other well. James and the man chatted a bit, and then James turned away to wait on another customer. My partner and I were nearby in line.

All I can say is that this family friend hugged and touched the young teen daughter in a way that alarmed both of us. I’ll call it near-groping. It did not look good at all. The girl was definitely squirming and cringing, and I was about to crawl out of my skin.

I’ll admit we were both paralyzed in that moment. Neither one of us did anything. It was a brief exchange and the girl managed to extract herself in probably less than 5 seconds, but we saw what we saw. We paid the older son for our vegetables, and as we walked away we checked in with each other. Yes, we were both aghast.

Now as you know, I’m in the sexual abuse prevention business, so I check myself regularly about my reactions. I worry I can be quick on the trigger. Also, I really didn’t know what I should do in that moment. We went home.

In hindsight I can say that what we decided to do next was not what I would do today, some 4 years later. We wrote an anonymous letter to the father. We told him we had been to his booth and exactly what we saw – that his daughter had been hugged and touched by the man in a way that appeared sexual and was definitely uncomfortable for her. We described her reaction. We described the family friend. We asked him to please check in with his daughter about the relationship and we enclosed the Darkness to Light’s booklet The 5 Steps to Protecting our Children.

I’ll give myself maybe a B- for that one.

Today I would be a lot more direct. I honestly don’t remember why we sent the letter anonymously. I still wouldn’t say something right there in public, out of concern for the girl feeling ashamed; but I’d call the father by phone to share what I saw. I’d do this because I’d want to open a dialogue in case he needed advice, or just so that he could process what I was telling him. I’d also want to be as sure as I could be that yes, he’d actually talk to his daughter. And I wouldn’t second-guess myself so much about my “bias.” But at least we did something and what we did was pretty strong.

I’ll call what we did Bystander Intervention. There was definitely a boundary violation happening. Ma-a-aybe you could say the man was in the spirit of the market and was just overly demonstrative with the girl. Maybe? But the girl was definitely uncomfortable, and in my book that makes it a boundary violation. Would another person who was not a child sexual abuse expert notice the interaction and be uncomfortable with it like I was? I don’t know. But hey, I didn’t get here without some experience.

So I’ll call what we did an “intervention” because we confronted a boundary violation, somewhat head-on. Our intervention was not perfect, but we did something.

In my opinion, there are two guideposts to Bystander Intervention. The first is trust your gut. If it doesn’t feel right, choose on the side of trusting yourself. Choose on the side of protecting the child.

The second is to recognize red flags of grooming and abuse and if you see them, get involved in some way that fits with the situation you’re in. Here are some common red flags:

  • Excessive touching
  • Intimate touching
  • Special one-on-one attention, outings, gifts
  • Encouraging ‘secrets’
  • Manipulating for private one-one time
  • Breaking rules ‘innocently’
  • Being too eager for a child’s affection, forcing affection
  • Winning trust of surrounding adults by filling needs
  • Taking photos of individual children
  • Talking with a child privately via social media and texting

And if you see a pattern of boundary violations or if you intervene and boundary violations continue, it’s imperative that you make a report to the police or child protective services. You should feel supported by the fact that you do not need proof that abuse is happening in order to report, just reasonable suspicion.

I’ve come to know that there’s never really a ‘perfect’ bystander intervention. And as we’ve hacked our way through the jungle of bystander engagement at Darkness to Light, I’ve learned that a good plan can get clear in conversation with other people we trust. So don’t let the complexity of it stop you from doing something.

Your something could be everything to a child.

Bystander intervention can be hard! We want to hear from you. In the comments section, share your stories of bystander prevention and intervention, or ask Paula a question about a child protection concern. if you missed last week’s blog, find out about bystander prevention by reading Greta’s story


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.




In order to create a safe and supportive community for all of our readers, comments that are mean spirited or contain personal attacks will not be approved. Additionally, please help us maintain productive conversations by refraining from posting profanity, spam, advertisements, unrelated comments, and links to other commercial ventures. Darkness to Light reserves the right to refrain from approving any comment that does not adhere to the above guideline or is otherwise deemed inappropriate.

The conversation below is meant to be a starting point and exploration of ways to be an active bystander to protect children from child sexual abuse. If you feel a child is in immediate danger, call 911. If you need ongoing help, you may call the Darkness to Light hotline at 866-FOR-LIGHT. The helpline provides free, anonymous, confidential support services including resources and referrals 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. To learn more about Darkness to Light’s two hour child sexual abuse prevention training, visit

2 responses to “Active Bystanding: It’s a Jungle Out There! – Part 2

  1. Paula, sometimes I struggle with what I feel is being too over-protective. I’m worried that things I see as “grooming” are really just people who want to be nice to my kid! How can I tell the difference? Thanks!

  2. Hi Nikki. That is such a good question and I would bet it is one that a lot of people have once they are ‘aware’ child sexual abuse. I check myself for the same thing. One of the reasons its so challenging is that the very same behavior that could be grooming may also be someone being kind and interested in our child in a healthy way. For example, when I was a child, my uncle used to take me to shoot basketball. We went off by ourselves to do that – outside, but still one on one. He did that because he really loved me and was fostering my talent. That was his INTENT. Love and fostering my talent. Encouraging me. Totally pure. But if a person’s intent were to eventually abuse a child, that very same behavior could be a grooming strategy. So, with the exception of major boundary violations, like unhealthy touching, keeping secrets etc. there is a lot of gray area. What I always fall back on is that we have to practice all 5 Steps from Stewards of Children. None of them will work long term in isolation. Each step needs the support of the others. (have you had the Stewards of Children training?) We need to tell our children what sexual abuse is in a way they can understand. We need to reinforce that they have good instincts and to help them tune into whether they are “comfortable or uncomfortable” with someone. We need to let them know what their body boundaries are etc. That they can tell us anything, anytime and we will listen and believe them and not be angry. We need to have all the conversations suggested here Also we need to have some parameters on how people interact with our kids – like if they do have one on one time, is it observable by others, is it interruptible? Could it be turned into a group situation instead? And when our child comes back from time with another adult, we can ask them how they felt about it. What games did you play? etc, to get a handle on how the interaction was. And then, I really think that if we are uncomfortable with another adult’s interactions with our child, we can just ask the adult about it. We can say, “ya know, I’ve become really sensitive to my child’s boundaries and safety. When you did xyz I got uncomfortable. Can you let me know where you were coming from?” That sounds really risky, but it’s worth it. If their interaction was innocent and with kind intent, their answer will probably put you at ease. If it wasn’t, you’ll probably get a convoluted answer OR you’ll still be uncomfortable. And in that case, you will have put the person on notice that you’re paying attention. And you’ll probably put more boundaries in place. I hope this is helpful in some way. If you want to share more specifically about interactions you are seeing, we can dialogue about it further. I’m glad you wrote!

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