Something Doesn’t Seem Right: 12 Tips for Responding to Abuse

Friday, September 25th, 2015

If you work with children in a church, school, or other organization, you should be alert to unusual changes in a child’s behavior or moods. Recognizing and responding to abuse is part of our role as leaders—whether as clergy, teachers, staff, or volunteers—and we should be ready to take action if we have concerns about the behavior of an adult or the welfare of a child.

Abusers often tell children that bad things will happen if they tell others about abuse. It is a “secret” that is not to be shared. Because of this fear, some children may tell you in an indirect way, hoping that you will figure out what they are trying to tell you. For example, a child may say, “What would happen if a friend of mine was being touched by someone but she was afraid to tell?” Other times, you may just have a sense that something is wrong.

So what should you do if a child or youth shares his or her story with you?

  1. First and foremost, listen!
  2. Provide a safe environment. Find a place that is private to talk with the child where you will not be interrupted (but make sure there is visibility to others).
  3. Express compassion and sit near the child, but do not touch him or her without permission.
  4. Stay calm. Do not express shock, as that may affect the child’s comfort level.
  5. Reassure the child that he or she did nothing wrong and that you believe him or her.
  6. Encourage the child to tell you what happened, but don’t press for details or interrogate.
  7. Don’t make suggestions or lead the child; listen to his or her explanation.
  8. Be supportive, not judgmental. Don’t talk negatively. Don’t ask questions that might imply the child was at fault, such as, “Why didn’t you tell me before?” or, “What were you doing at that place?”
  9. If asked to keep a secret, respond with honesty. “I will not tell other teachers or children, but I may have to tell someone who can help you.”
  10. Avoid leading questions such as, “Where did he touch you?”
  11. Allow the child to show visible injuries, but do not insist on seeing the child’s injuries.
  12. Document your recollection of the conversation in writing as soon as possible to provide accurate information in future conversations with the appropriate person of authority. Then, report the abuse immediately.