How Can I Avoid Being Accused of Abuse?
Six Guidelines from Kidpower
Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
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Grandparents, teachers, coaches, youth group leaders, health professionals, and other caring adults sometimes ask us, “How can I protect myself from a child getting upset with me and accusing me of abuse?”
This is a common worry. In fact, we have led workshops for physical and occupational therapists who often have to touch kids in ways the kids hate, and these kids will sometimes complain that they are being abused. Sadly, because of worries about damage to their reputation, some adults feel afraid to hug kids, uncomfortable volunteering to help kids, and confused about what is and is not okay in terms of how they interact with kids.
Here are six guidelines to help you avoid problems while giving young people the great gift of your time, guidance, and love.
1. Act in a way that you would be comfortable with everyone knowing about.
Take charge of the emotional and physical safety of the young people in your care by being a powerful, responsible, and respectful adult leader. Encourage and welcome the involvement and presence of a child’s parents and caregivers. Insist that both adults and kids participate in a way that upholds your purpose and values.
Remember that kids come from families and cultures that often have very different standards about nudity, bathroom jokes, or suggestive behavior. Err on the safe side. If you think there may be any question, have a conversation with other involved adults to agree about what the boundaries are about appropriate touch, jokes, games, and levels of nudity.
If you are responsible for a group of children or teens, be even-handed. Avoid singling any child out for special attention or favors. When I was a Girl Scout and Campfire leader, I used to tell my own children, “During this camping trip, pretend I am not your mother, because my job is to take care of everybody.”
2. Think First before you choose to be alone with a child.
Children thrive on one-on-one relationships with caring adults, but be sure you have the kind of personal or professional relationship that makes it appropriate and safe before you are alone with a child. Make sure you have permission from the child’s parents, and, if you have any doubt at all, check with your supervisor or a colleague. Remember that maintenance of a high level of visibility can help to protect you from being accused of abuse. If possible, consider not driving alone with a child, not being in an isolated room while you tutor or give private lessons, leaving doors open, and having windows in classroom doors.
According to Sterling Goodrich, a Program Specialist at After School Matters and long-time Kidpower Chicago Instructor, “When I was a full-time youth worker, our guideline was to not be alone with any youth if at all possible. Ideally, we would have one or more adult youth workers or parents present at the programs. It was beneficial to have another adult present for a few reasons: one, the other adult could help other youth workers refocus on organizational priorities and guidelines if they were starting to lose sight of those due to fatigue and/or frustration with the youth; two, there would be another adult witness who could help clear up any wrongful accusations; and three, if an adult tried to be a part of the youth program and had predatory intentions, then this person would be denied privacy and control with a youth.
If we could not have another adult present, the next best option was to have several youth present.” But what if the child needs to have a private conversation with you? According to Kidpower India Center Director Praveen Vempadapu, “When I was in charge of a girls’ group home, I made it a point never to counsel a girl inside a closed room. Rather, I used to take her into the playground and speak there. Everybody could see us, but at the same time the distance kept the privacy intact.”
3. Respect kids’ boundaries about touch and other kinds of connection.
Teach and uphold these Kidpower Safety Rules:
- Touch or games for fun, play, or affection should be the choice of each person.
- Any kind of touch or other activities with young people should also be safe, allowed by their adults, and not a secret.
Like all of us, young people have different ways of connecting and different kinds of needs about touch. Comfort about touch, attention, and other interactions often changes depending on someone’s age or mood, the other person, and the situation. Helping young people identify and articulate their feelings about personal boundaries and modeling for them how to notice and respect the boundaries of others are some of the important life skills you can give them.
There are many ways of making connection. Be sure to only do things that you are comfortable with and that are appropriate for your role and relationship with the child. Hug the child who reaches out to you for a hug. Pat the arm of the child who wants to be touched but not hugged. Wrestling and playing other physical games can also be fine, if the child is clearly enjoying the activity, and you stop and check in to make sure the child is comfortable and wants to continue. Make eye contact with and smile at the kid who is more reserved physically. If a child doesn’t like eye contact, then take a few minutes to talk about or do something this child is interested in.
Pay attention to body language. Whether a child leans towards you or away from you is a great clue about feelings about touch with you at that moment. If you are not sure, let the child initiate the contact or ask. Especially when a young person seems shy, reserved, or uncomfortable, avoid pressure by giving a choice between a “yes” and a “yes.” “Would you prefer a high-five or a wave to say good-bye?” If a child seems upset, you can ask, “Would you like me to hug you or do you want to be in your own space for a while?”
Kinesthetic learners often learn physical activities much more quickly if they are helped to move their bodies rather than just being shown a technique. Helping them to understand how they learn can serve them well for the rest of their lives. If you are not sure whether being touched for this reason is okay with someone, you can explain and offer a choice, “Many people ‘learn by doing’ more easily than by watching what to do, and doing something new can feel awkward at first. Is it okay if I help you move your body through this technique the right way a few times or would you rather copy what I show you?”
4. Acknowledge a child’s right to dislike and feel unhappy about something you do.
Tell kids that, “Some things are not your choice, including touch for health of safety.” Being restrained from hitting someone, from running in front of a car, or from breaking something is not a choice. Being required to use a seatbelt or car seat is not a choice. Leaving the park when it’s time to go home is not a choice. Having to wait your turn or to accept losing a game is not a choice.
Most of us feel sad or angry when someone forces us to do something against our wishes. Why should kids be any different? A sympathetic acknowledgement of upset feelings can give young people the message that they have a right to their feelings while guiding them to express these feelings in safe ways. Suppose a child is shouting insults because she is upset about not getting her way. You can say firmly and kindly, “No name-calling! Instead, you can tell me you feel angry about what I decided. I am sorry that you are unhappy, and we can talk about it later with your parents so that they know too.” During the workshop for physical therapists mentioned at the beginning of this article, we practiced different ways of acknowledging feelings, such as, “I know my doing this hurts you, and I’m sorry. I have to do this in order to help you get better. Maybe it will help if we both shout, “I HATE THIS!’ so everybody knows how you feel.”
5. Model and uphold clear boundaries about sexual behavior.
Once a pretty ten-year-old girl walked into an after-school program where I was teaching a Kidpower workshop. She sighed in resignation as a couple of the boys stared and her and started making “Whoo! Whoo!” noises. Of course I stopped them, but it was clear that this behavior was common in this group and hadn’t been addressed before.
It’s normal for kids to be interested in their bodies and each other’s bodies, and some kids push the boundaries about this as they do about other things – showing off their body parts, teasing other kids about their bodies, or pulling down someone’s pants as a joke. Set clear, firm boundaries that this kind of play, teasing, and jokes is not appropriate for young people in your care. Speaking up about small stuff will help prevent bigger stuff. Step in to stop any inappropriate behavior and, with minors, inform the parents of both kids in a non-attacking way.
Make sure you are setting a good example. Don’t make sexual jokes around kids or laugh at sexual jokes if kids tell them in your presence. Be really careful with young people in how everyone, both kids and adults, talks or acts about clothing, bodies, and relationships.
According to our Vermont Center Director Laura Slesar, who has worked at a number of schools, “Be cautious about things like dancing with kids when chaperoning at dances: I had a female colleague who had to explain to an 11th-grade boy why it was not okay for him to ‘dirty dance’ with her – and he was honestly surprised! When I worked with at-risk teens at a boarding school, our goal was to help the students – particularly for those who had been sexually abused – see that we were safe adults who were NOT going to look at them in a sexual way.”
6. If a child accuses you of being abusive, use this as a teaching moment.
Instead of trying to deny, ignore, or suppress this accusation, acknowledge the feeling under this statement and be clear that you and the child will talk to others to get help. For example, you might say in a calm, positive voice, “Thank you for telling me. I am sorry that my doing this upset you. Problems should not be secrets, and we are going to talk your concerns over with your parents.” Or, “I understand that this is what you think happened. That was not what I meant to say or do (or, not what I think I said or did). We are going to talk this over with your parents and my supervisor.”
Suppose you made a mistake and accidentally touched a child in a way that was embarrassing or hurtful. Model how to take responsibility and promote the “Put Safety Ahead of Embarrassment” and “Touch Should Not Be a Secret” messages. You might say, “I’m sorry I bumped into you like that. It was an accident. I’ll be careful not to do it again. I’ll tell your parents what happened.” If abuse charges are being filed against you, get legal advice. However, if the above guidelines are being followed, this is very unlikely to happen. Don’t let fear of a word that a child has learned has power cause you to panic. Do take action to address the feelings of the child, clear up any misunderstandings, and inform parents, supervisors, co-workers, and/or other involved adults.
Clear communication, healthy boundaries, and effective adult leadership can help prevent most of the mistakes, misperceptions, and disagreements that might lead to an unfair accusation of sexual abuse. As Sterling says about his experiences with youth programs, “Even though I felt that I was acting honorably and respectfully, I still did fear being falsely accused of abuse when I was a youth worker. It was the fear of many youth workers that I worked with. I now manage youth workers, and I think these guidelines will be helpful for them.”
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– Irene van der Zande has been featured as a child safety expert by USA Today, CNN, and The Wall Street Journal and is the author of Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe. She is also the founder of Kidpower.org, a non-profit organization that has helped to protect over two million young people from child abuse, bullying, and abduction since 1989