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My friend doesn't respect personal space, will they abuse a child?

Question: 

Dear Stop It Now!,

I read an article on preventing child abuse and realized that I know someone who presents with some of the signs of an abuser, but I have never seen them interact with a child in front of me. However, I am aware that they work with children and they make me and other friends uncomfortable around their difficulty with personal space and  boundaries (they give hugs too tight and for too long, holding hands randomly). I am not aware that this person has ever hurt a child, and he doesn't really talk about children, but I would like to find out more information on what to look for.

I don't want to be responsible for letting this pass in front of my eyes. I was abused as a child and although I have been seeing a therapist, I am still suffering from the emotional pain and mistrust it created in me.

Response: 
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Dear Concerned Individual,

I'm so sorry to hear that you experienced sexual abuse as a child. It's great that you're becoming aware of what to look out for in adults' behaviors that could mean children are not safe.

It’s true that there are a number of boundary-crossing and other actions that adults may engage in with children or in the presence of others that may put a child in a more vulnerable place – like these Signs An Adult Is At-Risk To Harm A Child. Sometimes these behaviors may indicate an adult is a risk to a child sexually, but it's also possible that the person may not be a risk to sexually abuse a child. It could be that this adult does have issues with boundaries and personal space and they may not understand how it’s important to treat children in a way that takes into account their age and developmental stage, or they may not understand how their actions are modeling potentially unsafe behavior in front of or around youth. They may have difficulties with social cues. No matter what though, responding to these behaviors is completely appropriate – and important.

What we do know is that often a conversation can be a helpful first step – if the adult just made a mistake or didn’t understand the impact their behaviors may have had, then this gives them a chance to correct themselves. If the adult may be having sexual thoughts about children, this shows them that adults are involved and willing to have difficult conversations. Often folks who intentionally cross boundaries with youth bank on the fact that adults may normalize, rationalize or minimize concerns they have as “no big deal” and this can allow minor boundary crossing behaviors (like a touch on a shoulder) to increase (to a touch on the lower back) to eventually become something unsafe or abusive (like touching a child’s buttocks). A conversation can also be a chance to offer an adult support, and to clarify what boundaries you’re asking them to respect. If someone ignores this request, that gives you information. 

If you’re willing, you may want to talk to your friend circle and share how you’re feeling, and confirm that they have also felt this way about your friend. You can “make a pact” to talk to your friend about this, individually, when this comes up – or maybe you can pull them aside with another friend and share how this has been making you feel. In terms of what to say and how to say it, you want to be clear but not accusatory. You don’t want to assume any intentions, but state what boundaries you’re asking them to respect. You (and others) can let them know that you care about them, and that this isn’t to judge them or shame them – but then share what behaviors make you uneasy. 

You can say something like, “Friend, I care about you a lot, and I don’t want you to take this the wrong way because I value the relationship we have together, but this is really important so I have to say it. It makes me uncomfortable when you hug me for a long time. When I try to pull away, that’s my indication that I’d like the hug to be over – so I’m asking you to respect my limits. I enjoy that we can show each other physical affection, but I also need you to respect my cues around this too. This also goes for holding my hand – if you’re looking to hold my hand, please ask first. Don’t just put your hand in mine. Okay?

I want to stress that these types of conversations are best done with the support of others – either by bringing an ally that you both are friends with to have this talk, or to have a support person to decompress with afterwards so that you can “debrief” so-to-speak if anything confusing or challenging comes up and to just share more generally how that felt. And, never have this conversation unless it is safe to do so – so if this person had a history of harmful behaviors towards others, this may not be safe and your own safety is the first priority. I also know that for many folks, especially those who experienced abuse or trauma in their childhoods, it’s incredibly meaningful to talk about one’s own limits and comfortability level regarding physical touch and affection – and to then see those boundaries respected. Bodily autonomy is important at all ages, and you shouldn’t need to endure these feelings just because this person is your friend. I’ve included some helpful links below if you decide to have a conversation with them.

Finally, I hear that you’re still really struggling with the impacts of your own abuse, and I’m so sorry to hear that. I’m glad that you have a therapist in your life who you’re working with, and I certainly want to encourage you to keep them updated in the conversations you may be having with your friend, and taking stock of how you’re feeling about this too. It’s possible that additional emotions or memories may come up, so please take care of yourself first and foremost. I also want to include our resource guide for Adults Who Experienced Sexual Abuse as Children, in case you want to look through some of the healing resources we have listed there.

And, as always, I do want to invite you to reach out directly to our helpline by calling 1.888.PREVENT, replying directly to this email or starting a chat with us by going to our Get Immediate Help page if you wanted to discuss your situation more. 

Take care,
Stop It Now!

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Last edited on: June 29th, 2020