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.
The team at Darkness to Light has been having a lot of conversation recently about what it is to be an engaged bystander. We’ve really gotten into the weeds about it, too. We all agree that bystander engagement is a #1 priority when it comes to preventing sexual abuse. Why? Because as we like to say, “The potential offender and the child are the two least likely people to intervene in their own situation.” That leaves the bystanding adults around those two people if prevention is going to happen.
That much we’re clear about. Educating and empowering “non-offending adults” is the core of the Darkness to Light mission. The Holy Grail of prevention. Check.
But here’s where the weeds get thorny and the forest grows a bit dark. When does one intervene, and how? By “when,” we mean at what threshold of potentially unsafe behavior does one get active with prevention? Everyone struggles with this. It’s the whole “Am I being overly sensitive and what if he/she is just a nice person” train of thought. And if our gut is somehow telling us that we’ve reached that threshold, exactly how does an engaged bystander get in the action and do something?
Because these two questions are so perplexing, most of us end up feeling a sense of failure, panic even, that what we’re doing is not enough. We get it that the problem of child sexual abuse is pervasive. One in ten children! And that the fallout is often life-long. We also get that bystanders are where the rubber meets the road. We’re the solution for sure, but we’re missing our trail guide!
I’ll spare you the hacking through the jungle part and just bring you into the clearing that we’ve come to. Let’s talk about “engaged bystanding” in two related categories – Bystander Prevention (part 1) and Bystander Intervention (part 2). An empowered bystander is a person who does either – or BOTH!
I have a friend that I’ll call Greta. A couple of weekends ago she and her 11-year-old son went to a car show where the boy was befriended by a 20-year-old man. This man is like a friend of a friend, so not a complete stranger. The boy and the man hang out together during the car show, with Greta the mom always nearby. Never is the boy alone with the man. Funny that the man has taken such a strong interest in the boy, but ok, good enough. They seem to be having a good time and the man seems nice.
And side note – the boy is one of those “sage in a boy body” types that doesn’t connect super well with other kids and could use a friend. It’s kind of encouraging to see him having a connection with someone outside the family bubble.
Now the son is also a sweet, sweet kid – still sweet enough that he tells his mom pretty much everything. (Definitely want to preserve that dynamic!) Late in the day the boy mentions to Greta that “Donald” has asked him to exchange phone numbers so they can text back and forth. Hmmm. The guy spends the whole day at the car show with a young boy as his choice for company, and now a cell phone number exchange?
The gut begins to clutch a bit, doesn’t it? But nothing “bad” has happened.
Now check this out because this is where the mom, in excellent Bystander Prevention mode, is really on her toes.
In response to the gut-twinge, Greta has a conversation with her son that evening. She tells him essentially, “Donald seems to be a super nice guy but he’s quite a bit older than you. Remember we’ve said in the past, if you ever feel uncomfortable with somebody, it’s important to tell me right away. That goes for Donald, too.” While they’re at it, Greta takes the opportunity to explain digital safety and what personal information is ok to share, and what is not ok to share.
Then some other cool stuff happens. Because Greta has had an open conversation with him, the son starts sharing the text messages that Donald and he are sending back and forth. It’s just general get-to-know-you stuff. What movies do you like? How’s school? Stuff like that.
Remember, mom’s sharp. She doesn’t want to shut down her son’s sharing and she’s still marginally happy that her son has a friend. Still, this 20-year-old guy is starting to seem focused on her 11-year-old son. She entertains the idea of texting the man from her son’s phone to give him the heads up that she’s watching the messages, because by now she’s reading them for herself. But, she holds off.
Notice – Mom is in full bystander prevention mode. She has not made a big confrontation – what’s there to confront really? But she’s talked with her son about safety and she’s checked in about how he feels with this older man. She’s monitoring the text messaging. She’s weighing her options. And most importantly, the hair on the back of her neck is up, and she’s consciously noticing it.
A week passes. Now Donald is asking the boy (not the mom- another red flag) if he wants to go to a movie this weekend. Big clench.
So here’s the deal. This is either textbook grooming, or the boy and this man have a special relationship that could be really nice. The man might be socially less-connected like the boy, and has found a friend in the boy. Or he might be a predator. Geez.
By the way the boy’s Dad, who is very much in the picture but not in the household, is in full-bent “this won’t be happening” mode. Greta has made him aware of the situation, too. Good for Greta.
So now Greta has a dilemma. The boy isn’t going to the movie – that’s for sure. But does she tell Donald straight up? “Our family doesn’t allow our son to go to one-on-one outings with other adults.” Or, does she simply say that the boy has other plans? ‘Because if she does the latter there’s a good chance there will be another invitation.
The problem with telling Donald straightly is that it infers that the relationship could be unsafe. Is that rude? Should she be a bit nicer and thank him for his interest? But if he’s an offender, doesn’t thanking him kind of encourage more contact? And what about the fact that her son doesn’t have a lot of friends to start with?
I’ll tell you the outcome – Greta decides to tell the man straightly, “My son isn’t permitted to go on one-one-one outings with another adult.” She doesn’t justify herself. She doesn’t equivocate by suggesting “maybe next time.”
That’s as far as the story goes to present day. Mom is still alert. Son is still sharing with mom. Dad and mom are on the same page. And the man hasn’t been completely cut off, but he’s been told straightly that he won’t be having isolated time with the boy.
Mom and Dad are engaged bystanders, this time in prevention mode. No harm has come to their son. No damaging boundary violation has happened. That’s what we call Bystander Prevention.
Stay tuned for part two, Bystander Intervention…
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.
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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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 D2L.org/Stewards.