Active Bystanding: It’s a Jungle Out There! – Part 1

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.

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.



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

7 responses to “Active Bystanding: It’s a Jungle Out There! – Part 1

  1. Most of those signals or red flags seem to be obvious. What I am most concerned about is recognizing the signs when the perpetrator is a family member. Like how can I tell if my granddaughters step father is the one

  2. Hello, I really enjoyed reading these ideas… how would you deal with a similar situation with an extended family member? How are you a bystander on prevention mode with relatives?

  3. I agree Isabela that a lot of the red flags are obvious to some degree. And dealing with sexual abuse in a family is probably one of the most challenging situations there can be. Are you familiar with D2L’s 5 Steps to Protecting Our Children or the Stewards of Children Program? One of the things we like to talk about is that none of the 5 Steps works in isolation from the others. Meaning, you can know the signs/red flags, but if we don’t talk to our children or the other caregivers around that child, we may not have the full picture. In your situation I would recommend talking to your granddaughters mother first, about the things that concern you. And then, possibly, I’d suggest visiting this link to see if you would feel comfortable with the ideas presented there about talking to your grand daughter to discover if she is uncomfortable with her step-father, or if he is interacting with her in ways that violate her boundaries. One of the reason sexual abuse happens is because we are reluctant to talk about boundary violations and things that concern us. As you say, many times people have an inkling something is wrong, but they don’t take it a step further. I advise you to present your concerns calmly to the child’s mother, and possibly to use the tips to talk with your grand daughter.

  4. Oh gosh, relatives is a challenging area because we have so much at stake! I know it may seem simplistic, but one of the things we teach that equally applies to relatives is like a 3 step intervention where you 1. describe the behavior that concerns you. 2. calmly set a limit, and 3. “move on” An example: Tom, it looks like Allison (child) is uncomfortable being hugged and kissed so much. Please give her some personal space. Allison, lets go join the other kids in the living room. The idea is not to be vague but to directly name the behavior that concerns you. Then tell the person the preferred behavior. Then, don’t get embroiled in it or belabor it. Move on with the child to another activity. And of course if you see a pattern of serious boundary violations or if you intervene and the person will not follow your limits, you may need to get the support of others you trust in the family, or even make a report.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *