Child Abuse

Why Adults Fail to Protect Children

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Ask nearly anyone: They’ll say they would speak up if they thought a child was being abused. Many are certain they’d recognize abusive behavior if it were happening. Almost no one believes they would allow harmful sexual behavior to continue if they knew for sure that it was going on.

And yet, the sad truth: Millions of children are abused every year in this country. Many of them believe, correctly, that someone else knows or should know about their situation, but does little or nothing to protect them. Some tell adults what’s going on, seeking protection and help, only to be met with disbelief, denial, blame, or even punishment. How can that be?

No excuses. But no simple answers, either.

When you’re the one who has been hurt in this way (or someone who cares about a child who has), it’s hard to imagine that there can be any 'good reason' for failing to protect a vulnerable child. You may feel doubly betrayed by someone’s failure to help. You were in danger, someone could have protected you and chose not to…period. No excuses or rationalizations for their failure seem acceptable.

Also, some people actually feel more anger toward a non-abusive adult who didn’t speak up than toward the person who actually hurt them. They may have expected the worst of the abuser, who was clearly deeply disturbed or had little or no concern for others, but expected better from someone who was otherwise mostly caring and worthy of trust. This anger at the person who failed to protect may be especially strong while the abuse is happening, or as one begins coming to grips with the consequences. But it can last for decades.

I totally understand. I'm not trying to 'excuse' anyone. I'm not trying to convince you of anything. I am just offering some perspectives and information based on decades of experience and research on how people can become 'bystanders' who fail to protect others from harm, including children who are being abused.

I am not asking you to stop feeling angry.

A time may have come, or may come, when you really want to understand: Why did [whoever it was], who could have protected me – could have stopped it – remain silent and do nothing, even when the evidence was clear?

Maybe answering these questions feels like an important part of your healing process. Maybe you want to reconnect with someone who did not protect you, and hope to prepare yourself by trying to understand why and how they may understand or justify their response (or lack of one). Maybe you want to wrap up some loose ends in your own mind, so you can let go and move on from a relationship with someone who failed you when you needed them most.

Whatever your reasons for wanting to know, there is no simple answer to the question. And again, gaining understanding does not mean having to give up your anger or disappointment toward the person before you’re good and ready, if ever.

With these complexities and cautions in mind, I am offering the following perspectives and information.

Most important, it’s helpful to remember that the people children look to for protection are – like all of us – imperfect and complicated individuals. They have very real limitations, including thinking that’s distorted by hopes, fears and misunderstandings. What you legitimately experienced as a betrayal may have been the best they could do at the time. That doesn’t make it OK, just tragically human and real.

As difficult as it may be to accept, there are many genuine, compelling reasons that it can be challenging for adults – even otherwise loving and caring adults – to take protective action, or even to notice, when children are being abused, or at risk of being harmed in that way. These reasons or causes include:

  • Overwhelming feelings (like fear, anger, or shame) caused by just thinking about the sexual abuse of children.
  • Confusion caused by incorrect stereotypes about what kinds of people sexually use and abuse children.
  • Physical, emotional, and financial dependency on an individual or group that would be lost (for oneself and the family) if such concerns are raised.
  • Self doubts of various kinds (e.g., “I’m paranoid.” “What if I’m wrong?” “It’s none of my business.”).
  • Fears of various consequences (e.g., of acknowledging betrayal by a trusted and respected person, of being wrong, of being right).

For these and many other reasons (explored in detail below), even when an adult knows about such behavior, he or she may not speak up, or may even tell the child to keep quiet. Also, if the child’s distress or any harm seems minor or absent, a tragic calculation may take place: the immediate costs of confronting the situation seem greater than the imagined long-term costs of looking the other way.

Tragically limited people, in tragic predicaments

As I’ve said before, such reasons do not excuse the failure to act protectively. They just offer possible explanations for why that decision can be made, and how it can be much more complicated than it seems at first.

What’s written above is a general overview, and may be enough for you (right now). If you want more information about the reasons mentioned above, I explore each one and some others in depth below. I also offer some final thoughts at the very end of this page.

The reality of this complexity, and the tragic and all-too-human limitations that result in failure to protect sexually used and abused children, are very serious challenges to educating and empowering adults to overcome such barriers to action. Thankfully, some people and organizations are addressing this real-world complexity in their efforts to prevent and end the sexual exploitation and abuse of children. A leader is Stop It Now!, which has many resources for adults attempting to deal with suspected or known sexual abuse of a child they know.

Overwhelming Feelings

Even adults with no personal experiences of child abuse or sexual trauma will often have instant, gut-wrenching reactions to hearing or seeing anything about the abuse of a child, particularly sexual abuse. Such unpleasant and unwanted reactions make many people very resistant to paying attention to anything that might trigger such responses again – including clear evidence that abuse is happening to a child they know.

Given how common abusive experiences in childhood are for both men and women (for sexual abuse alone, about 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men), there’s a good possibility that a potentially protective adult has had prior experience with child abuse or sexual trauma, either personally or with someone close to them.

I know that people can respond to such a history in many ways, some of which involve great efforts to avoid unwanted and confusing feelings that the experience may have caused. These strategies can include suppressing memories, denying it ever happened, blaming oneself, self-medication with alcohol or drugs, and rage or violence against others or themselves.

The ability to maintain such self-protective strategies (whether or not they are actually helpful) is usually greatly challenged when one learns that a child one cares about is or may be having similar harmful sexual experiences. The adult may be struggling (with or without realizing it) to keep such coping strategies or 'defenses' from breaking down. When the adult is going through that internal struggle, it can be very difficult to support the child, or even to acknowledge the reality of the situation.

Stereotypes

One of the biggest obstacles to acting on suspicions is the tendency, which all of us have, to divide the world into 'good' people, who do good things, and 'bad' people, who do bad things (or evil).

We all use stereotypes as shortcuts to decide who and what is safe. That’s how our brains work. And it’s very reassuring. We think we can tell who poses a risk. If they generally behave well, do good things for others, or are generous, inspiring, respected by others or fun to be with, then we instinctively believe they’re safe.

Dangerous stereotypes about who sexually abuses children

Tragically, such thinking gets in the way of protecting children. Even if we recognize this fact and know better, we still tend to act as if it’s only evil and creepy people who hurt children. We believe that we would easily recognize such people and protect children from them.

Unfortunately, it’s much more complicated than that. Those widely accepted stereotypes, especially the ones about what 'good people' do to others, make it difficult to recognize real risks. They are also what make it so difficult for children to tell when a respected person is physically or emotionally abusing them, or taking advantage of them sexually.

The truth is, sometimes loving and involved mothers and fathers hurt children. Sometimes fun and generous grandparents hurt children. Sometimes caring and dedicated coaches and teachers sexually hurt children. Sometimes inspiring religious leaders sexually hurt children. Sometimes exciting and attentive babysitters, and protective older siblings, cousins or kids down the street, sexually harm children.

In fact, only rarely is the person emotionally, physically and/or sexually harming a child one of those totally creepy people that everyone already suspects.

Most of us find it very challenging to simultaneously hold two conflicting views of how we expect people to behave. And so we often fail to see the risk when it’s staring us in the face. It’s very difficult, even scary, to accept that 'good' people have 'bad' qualities and behaviors, especially when the 'good' person is somebody we care about or respect. So there’s a strong tendency to ignore or bend the facts to fit our reassuring expectations. In reality, no one is purely good or purely bad. And sometimes a 'good' person’s bad behaviors include abusing children emotionally, physically, or sexually.

Still, even if someone can truly get past such stereotypes, the very real costs of speaking up create a huge barrier to acting. And as I’ve pointed out before, adults in a position to protect a child are also – like all of us – imperfect human beings with complicated mixtures of strengths, fears, and weaknesses that may severely limit their ability to protect a child who is being abused.

The Cost of Speaking Up vs. The Cost of Silence

Sadly, there are many ways that adults come to believe that trying to protect a child from abuse or exploitation is not worth the potential costs of doing so. Here are some of the most common ones.

Dependence on someone. Often, people who take advantage of a power imbalance to emotionally, physically or sexually harm a child also inspire feelings of powerlessness in adults who could protect that child. This sense of powerlessness may result from emotional and/or financial dependency on the person committing the harmful acts. Or there may have been previous threats or acts of physical or emotional violence from that person, or threats of suicide.

Competing survival needs and potential for greater harm. Many people are kept from speaking up by legitimate fears of violent retaliation against themselves, the child being abused, or other family members. Domestic violence or fear of a powerful and violent individual or group who is hurting a child (like gang members, people involved in organized crime, or a corrupt police officer or politician) are complex and especially dangerous challenges to acting protectively.

Concluding that protecting a child is just too costly

In addition, if the person to be accused has high status or wields power or authority in the group, it may not just be fear getting in the way, but also deeply ingrained values and beliefs about obeying authority figures. And when the person under suspicion has protected or stood by others in previous difficult situations, a genuine fear of being 'disloyal' may be particularly challenging.

Reluctance to acknowledge betrayal. When an individual who is loved or admired harms a child, the powerful sense of betrayal is felt not just by the child, but also by everyone else who trusted or respected that person. For both children and adults, acknowledging such a betrayal can threaten their overall sense of safety in the world.

That is, suddenly the rules have changed: Confidence about who can be trusted, and in one’s own judgments about friends, family members and other people, are totally called into question. Many children who have been abused or exploited face a tragic choice – between accepting the frightening new reality of betrayal and uncertainty, on the one hand, and what feels like the comparative safety of denying that anything has changed, on the other. Understandably, vulnerable children may choose denial. Yet the same is true for many adults who could protect children from the terrible betrayals of abuse or exploitation.

Guilt or shame about previous silence. Oddly, guilt or shame about not speaking up sooner can be another powerful factor that keeps people from acting, even once they let themselves recognize that something is not right.

Imagine you get a new job and in the first week you ask your boss about a minor but questionable expense on his expense account. He tells you to ignore it, that it’s OK, and you go on to let similar questionable expenses pass by each week. A year later, when a company audit raises the same questions, you find yourself trying to defend your boss’s actions to keep yourself from looking bad.

Realizing that you have tolerated inappropriate or harmful behavior over and over tends to make it much harder to confront the behavior in the present. People tend to feel like they’re partly responsible, and come to have a stake in pretending or even believing that the behavior must have been OK.

Self Doubt

Self doubt comes in many forms and from many sources, and it’s a major stumbling block for people who want to do what’s right when they suspect or know a child is being sexually exploited or abused.

Examples of self-doubt include:

Maybe I’m just being paranoid. People who have experienced abuse or violence themselves are often highly attuned to the slightest hint of a harmful interaction. But that hyperawareness or hypervigilance can be a double-edged sword. For example, after repeatedly pointing out concerning behaviors to family members and others who don’t believe them and dismiss their concerns, some people come to doubt their own perceptions.

Doubting valid feelings, thoughts, and perceptions

What if I’m wrong? It’s none of my business. 'Mind your own business' is one of the earliest lessons many of us were taught. Most people are reluctant to accuse someone else – especially about something as charged as sexual abuse – unless they have solid proof. Fears of almost surely ruining a friendship or other relationship, and of possibly hurting an innocent person’s reputation over something that may not be true, often outweigh the intention to act protectively on a suspicion.

What if I’m right? We could lose everything. Fears of the breakup of one’s family, of destructive intervention by child protective services, of shame, of losing one’s children, home or social standing – all of these stop some people from acting protectively. An imperfect child protection system and a criminal justice system that harshly punishes nearly all people who are convicted of sexual offenses (even children), often leads family members not to report someone they care about. Fear of devastating lifelong legal and other consequences are especially powerful when the person sexually misusing or abusing a child is another child or adolescent. (Adolescents and young children, almost always in response to being abused themselves, commit more than a third of all reported sexual abuse of children.)

Am I being a 'prude'? People who want to be open-minded about sexual matters sometimes distrust their own discomfort when they suspect sexually harmful behaviors. They wonder if they’re being prudish, or too proper. By focusing on their own feelings about sex, they sometimes miss real signals of harm or power imbalances that make consent impossible, and end up overlooking abusive or exploitive sexual behavior.

Misunderstandings about how children respond to abuse, or even what abuse is.

Many adults wrongly assume a child would tell if they experienced a harmful or traumatic emotional, physical or sexual interaction with an adult. If the child doesn’t tell, they assume nothing happened. Even when abuse or exploitation is known, if there is no visible impact on the child, or only minor effects are noticed, adults may believe the experience will be forgotten and have no lasting negative effects. They may genuinely think that it’s “best not to focus on a bad memory.”

Some adults also incorrectly equate physical child abuse with serious injury to the body, or sexual abuse only with violent rape. They don’t recognize that very serious harm can be caused by many kinds of physical abuse and emotional abuse. In fact, research suggests that emotional abuse can have greater negative effects on the mind and brain than physical abuse. Or they don't realize that sexualized interactions with children – including unwelcome touching, exposure to pornography, witnessing sexual acts, or even sexually demeaning and/or threatening comments – can cause significant and lasting harm. All of these experiences are betrayals of adults' responsibilities and children’s trust, and all can have lasting negative effects on a child’s mind, brain, body, relationships, and abilities to succeed at school and work.

Demands for Forgiveness

In many cultures, faith communities and families, the act of forgiveness is held up as the highest ideal, and for good reasons. Some acts of forgiveness are truly genuine on the part of the person doing the forgiving, truly justified by the attitudes and actions of the person receiving forgiveness, and truly emotionally, morally and spiritually beneficial for everyone involved.

Forgiveness can be false, and destructive

But others are not. Unfortunately, forgiveness can be false and destructive. This happens when it is demanded or forced — by outside pressure from others, including those who mostly want to avoid conflict and genuinely dealing with the problem, or by internal pressure, including a felt obligation to forgive in order to be a good person. This happens when someone and his or her actions are not (yet) worthy of forgiveness, at least not worthy of forgiveness as the only or main response to the harmful behavior.

Also, unfortunately some people strongly but incorrectly believe that a (seemingly) sincere apology, especially when accompanied by a promise not to repeat one’s harmful behavior, is enough for everyone to 'move on.'

Tragically, the pressure to 'forgive and forget' can be a powerful obstacle to protecting children effectively from harm. Finally, giving in to such a demand for forgiveness also means dismissing the feelings of those who have been harmed, and for them it usually feels, rightly so, like an extension of the abuse.

Some Final Thoughts

I hope the perspectives and information on this page have been enlightening and helpful for you. In closing I want to emphasize a few things:

While any or all of these reasons may be real, even legitimate roadblocks to protecting a child, none of them free adults from the responsibility of doing everything they can to keep children safe and help them heal from harm they have already suffered.

I hope that, by being aware of these complicated obstacles, and having a sober (if grudging) respect for their roots in inescapable human limitations and tragic social circumstances, we can all support one another more effectively in overcoming the very real barriers to protecting children.

Also, depending on your personal situation, understanding what might have gotten in the way may – or may not – reduce your feelings of disappointment, betrayal, or anger toward a person or group who failed to protect you or someone you love.

Finally, why people fail to protect a child from unwanted or abusive sexual experiences, especially if you were the child, are never merely 'reasons' to be 'understood.' They are tragic and painful realities that people who face them cannot help but struggle with, even grieve over – hopefully with the help of others who care and can truly help with sorting it out, however long that may need to take.

For excellent child sexual abuse prevention information and resources, including guidebooks on how to talk with other adults about potential or definite sexual abuse situations, visit the website of Stop It Now.

Special thanks to my colleague and friend Peter Pollard for helping me to write this page.