How do I respond to this adult's inappropriate behavior at our church?
Dear Stop It Now!,
My son who is 13 told me that a young adult at our church asked him how long his penis is. My son would not answer him so the next day this guy texted him the question in a vague way. I found the text and asked what he meant. Now that I know, I’m unsure how to respond. Do I just approach the guy and tell him he cannot have contact with my son or do I report it? And, is this abusive?
Dear Concerned Parent,
I think it’s fantastic that your son was able to talk to you about what happened, and wow! – that was so very brave of him to hold true to his boundaries and not respond to an adult asking inappropriate questions! I’m sorry to hear your son experienced this, but I’m glad you’ve reached out for more information and guidance.
Although I don’t think that this adult’s question is against the law, it is extremely inappropriate and is a Sign An Adult Is At-Risk To Harm A Child. This shouldn’t be taken lightly. First I’m curious if you or anyone else in your church had noticed other concerning signs in this adult’s behavior in the way he interacts with other youths, including these Behaviors To Watch For When Adults Are With Children. Sometimes these tip sheets can help a person articulate a feeling or action they had encountered before, but may not have been able to put into words.
Having a Conversation
Next, I think that both of these ideas you have are good ones. Talking to this man is completely reasonable and appropriate – as long as you feel safe doing so. It’s likely that this man knew that what he was doing was inappropriate, so having a conversation can help define and direct safe boundaries and let him know that there are protective (and vigilant) adults looking out for your son’s wellbeing.
This behavior – both the initial question and follow up text – is a serious boundary violation, could be interpreted as grooming and absolutely creates an unsafe environment for children. The conversation can be very matter-of-fact. Let him know that you are aware that he has been inappropriate, name exactly what has happened, that this is concerning and you are worried about children’s safety. Be clear on what you expect next, such as that he is never to have contact with your son in any way. You may also want to include that you do care about the safety of other children and his own for that matter – so you hope that he will consider addressing his behaviors that are not only crossing boundaries, but could also lead to criminal and abusive behavior. He can get help by also contacting our Helpline. For more guidance about how to have this discussion, I’ve included our guidebook called Let’s Talk. While not entirely relevant, I hope you will find some helpful tips for the conversation.
No matter what, it is important to start the talk only if you feel it’s safe to have, and think about bringing an ally along for support (like another community member, spouse or faith leader). It would be helpful to approach this without using judgmental language or tone, but be very clear about the facts you heard from your son and witnessed via his phone. Ask for clarification if you need it, and then clearly draw the line on appropriate behavior – and what you expect out of him in regards to his actions from here on out.
While I’m not sure if there is enough to take immediate action against this guy, you could absolutely make a report to your local authorities about this man’s behavior. I would start with a call to the local police, and ask about making a report of suspicious behavior. While they may not be able to follow up at this time, it’s possible there are previous reports and this will help them in any subsequent investigation.
Talking about Safety
Another way to involve protective adults would be to talk to the church about what’s happened. They should know about any potentially unsafe behavior that is occurring on their grounds – and now is also a great time to review what kinds of protective and preventative measures they’re taking to keep kids safe. If this person was in any type of position of power over kids (like a youth leader), it would be important that the church is able to respond by protecting the youth in their care. I’m including some additional resources below that may help you as you talk to your faith leaders about this incident, and can be helpful as they think about the practices, policies and guidelines they have to handle inappropriate incidents with care, respect and safety at the forefront.
- Prevention for Faith-Based Communities
- Balancing Acts: Keeping Kids Safe in Congregations: Training manual by Reverend Debra W. Haffner on addressing and preventing child sexual abuse in religious institutions including how to deal with an offender choosing to worship at your church or religious institution.
Responding to Your Son
I’m wondering, how has your son been doing since he spoke to you about this? Since events like these affect each child differently, you need to keep paying attention – and make sure your son knows just how proud you are that he spoke up to you, and that it was very brave for him to not respond to this person’s inappropriate comment. You can open yourself up to him (say – if there’s anything you ever want to talk about, you can always tell me, including if you have any difficult feelings about this situation), but you don’t need to keep bringing it up if he’s not. Also, keep an eye out for any drastic changes in your son’s behavior (like these Warning Signs) that may mean he may be struggling with some difficult feelings about what’s occurred. If you were to notice anything out of the ordinary in him, bring him to his pediatrician for a follow up and to get a referral for a counselor.
No doubt, I’m sure that this incident has also had an effect on you, and that’s why it’s so important to also be mindful of your own emotions from what’s happened. Check-in with yourself, and set aside time for you to decompress from what’s occurred – phone a friend or relative, speak to a faith leader, share this with your therapist or even with your spouse over dinner. If you do find that this affects you deeply, make sure that you give yourself permission to talk to a counselor or therapist as well – as self-care is so important, as this helps you continue to do the best for your son.
Stop It Now!
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Last edited on: June 1st, 2021