Tips on how to be a Responsible Bystander

bystanderBystanders can prevent child abuse. Each of us someday may be a bystander. Together we can overcome the barriers to speaking up, intervene before a child is harmed, and create violence-free homes, schools and communities. Child abuse is preventable!

Recognize Suspicious or Uncomfortable Behavior
As adults, we often witness behavior that makes us uneasy or uncomfortable. Paying attention to suspicious behavior is the first step to protecting children from harm.

Consider these scenarios:

  • You walk into the grocery store and see a young girl in the parking lot. She is talking to an older man who appears to be flirting with her. You have seen them around town before. Although she appears to only be about 12 years old, she is wearing a lot of makeup. While you don’t know anything for sure, you just have a feeling that something is not right.
  • Your friend, also a parent, insists her son give your daughter a hug goodbye after each play-date. It’s obvious that your friend’s child does not want to give these hugs. Still your friend insists. You feel uncomfortable and think the child’s boundaries are being crossed.

Overcome the Barriers Facing Bystanders

What might keep a bystander from taking action?

  • “I don’t know what to do or say.”
  • “I don’t feel safe approaching the man.”
  • “I don’t want to embarrass anyone or criticize another person’s parenting.”
  • “Maybe I’m overreacting.”
  • “It’s not my job… I just don’t want to get involved.”
  • “I’m not qualified to intervene.”

Take Action: Be an Engaged Bystander

You see the man from the grocery store outside the post office later that day. You decide to walk up and say something.

  • Make sure it is safe to confront him.
  • Find an ally, and intervene together.
  • In a calm voice, state the behavior that concerns you and how it makes you feel: “I don’t think it is right that you spend so much time with the young girl I’ve seen you with, and I want you to know that I feel uneasy about it.”
  • Express concern for all involved, and encourage seeking help: “I am concerned for everyone’s safety, and I will be contacting her parents. By law, this girl is far too young to be dating a man of your age.”

Your friend continues to demand that her son give your daughter a hug goodbye. Sensing the boy’s discomfort, you decide to talk to your friend.

  • Provide an alternative: “It’s okay if John doesn’t want to hug Sarah. Let’s wave, or give a high-five!”
  • Create an inclusive environment: “Let’s all play Go Fish before we leave!”
  • Follow up with your friend later: “Saying ‘no’ to a hug, and choosing to wave, allows John to practice his autonomy – and that is an important learning experience. Sarah feels okay waving too.” 

Support a Parent: Be a Compassionate Bystander

Every one of us has witnessed a mother or father trying to calm their crying baby or upset child in a public place. As many parents know, it is stressful – even embarrassing – if your baby cries loudly in a store or during a religious service. When you are a bystander to another mother or father and their upset child, you have the power to calm a stressful situation.

Overcome Barriers:

  • “I don’t want to get involved.”
  • “The baby is disrupting my day.”
  • “What if the parent gets angry?”
  • “The crying is annoying!”
  • “I don’t know them; I can’t help.

Take Action and Be a Compassionate Bystander:

  • Give the parent an understanding nod or smile
  • Assure the parent: “All babies cry.” | “My son cried in the waiting room at the Doctor’s office, too.” 
  • With small actions like these you can help to lower parents’ stress, allowing them to nurture and calm their baby safely.

Reach Out: Be a Bystander Who Joins and Connects

All too often, bystanders do not take action because they feel another person’s parenting style is personal and private: “It’s none of my business and I shouldn’t judge another parent.” But you can make a difference! If you sense anger, frustration, or stress between a parent and their child, anything you can do to help is a step towards preventing abuse.

Tips on how to connect:

  • Be friendly and helpful to parents. Are their hands full of grocery bags? Offer to carry something.
  • Connect with parents. Make eye contact. “Parenting is hard, isn’t it?”
  • Be positive. It doesn’t have to feel like a confrontation. “Kids are a handful, aren’t they? But they bring us a lot of joy!”
  • Be kind and friendly to children. Make a nice comment to an upset child.
  • Be proactive. Talk to your friends and neighbors and make a commitment to looking out for each other’s children.

How You Can Help: Social Support is Key

  • Get to know your neighbors. Problems seem less overwhelming when support is nearby.
  • Help a family under stress. Offer to babysit, help with chores and errands, or suggest resources in the community that can help.
  • Reach out to kids in your community. A smile or a word of encouragement can mean a lot.
  • Be an active community member. Lend a hand at local schools, community or faith-based organizations, children’s hospitals, social service agencies, or other places where families and children are supported.
  • Keep your neighborhood safe. Start a Neighborhood Watch or plan a local “National Night Out” community event. You will get to know your neighbors while helping to keep your neighborhood and children safe.
  • Learn how to recognize and report signs of child abuse and neglect. Reporting your concerns may protect a child and get help for a family who needs it. In Colorado, report suspected abuse to the Child Abuse and Neglect Toll-Free Hotline: 1-844-CO-4-Kids (5437).

(Reprinted from Children’s Bureau & Prevent Child Abuse America)

More information on child abuse prevention, reporting suspected abuse, and local resources.

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