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We often get asked by caring adults, “What do I do if a child comes to me for help?” These seven steps will help you be effective at helping children if they come to you with a problem.

1. Listen with compassion. Take a big breath and act very calm. If you seem to be upset, the child will be less likely to tell you what the problem is and might even deny there is a problem. Even if a problem seems small to you, avoid the temptation to discount the child’s concern or to lecture.

2. Provide reassurance. Say in a calm, matter-of-fact, warm voice, “Thank you for telling me. Everyone deserves to be safe, and I will figure out what to do to get help.” Reassure the child that telling you was the right thing to do — that he or she made a positive choice.

3. Ask a few general questions to figure out the nature of the problem. For example you might ask the names of individuals involved or “What happened?” or “How did this happen to you?” Do not interview the child as this must be done by a trained interviewer.

4. Be honest and don’t keep problems a secret. If the child asks you to keep a secret, explain that you can’t keep this kind of problem a secret. However, you can say that you will help in any way you can and respect their privacy as much as possible.

5. Put things in writing. Write down right away exactly what the child told you as specifically as you can with the dates and any documenting information you might have.

6. Protect the child from further harm, including retaliation. Depending on the situation, take action so that the hurtful behavior doesn’t continue. If you are concerned about possible child abuse and don’t know what to do, you can talk anonymously with a counselor in the US by calling the ChildHelp hotline at 1-800-422-4453. Many other countries have similar hotlines. Remember that children often don’t speak up about problems because they are afraid of someone harming them or their families if they do. Think about who might be upset because the child has told you, including friends or other family members, and make a plan to keep everyone safe.

7. Make sure that other responsible adults know what happened. If a child is worried about a problem that is an issue you can and should address, do so – and also let other responsible adults know, such as the child’s parents, your supervisor, and other adults working with the child. For any suspected abuse, violent acts involving threats or physical aggression, sexual harassment, or bullying that cannot be quickly resolved, report what happened to your organizational authorities immediately. Follow-up to make sure action is taken and that the child is protected from retaliation. If the child may be in immediate danger, call 9-1-1 and keep the child with you. Report to authorities within your organization according to your protocols, keep following-up to make sure that the child is getting help, and make sure that illegal behavior is reported to law enforcement or child protection authorities.

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Published: August 5, 2014   |   Last Updated: April 1, 2017

Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: cartoon-illustrated Kidpower Safety Comics and Kidpower Teaching Books curriculum; Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe; the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults; Earliest Teachable Moment: Personal Safety for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers; The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, and the Amazon Best Seller Doing Right by Our Kids: Protecting Child Safety at All Levels.