Speaking Out When Witnessing Abuse

Greg: And No One Intervened…

Posted Apr 28, 2013

Greg was a junior in college who came to see me because he felt “insecure with girls.” As we talked about his past, one incident caught my attention. Greg said that when he was 8 years old, his large extended family would get together each weekend during the summer for family picnics. One time, his aunt offered to teach all the kids how to play volleyball. Greg wasn’t interested because he preferred to fish in the stream for crayfish.

About an hour later, Greg heard his aunt yelling his name. She cornered him, yelling, “At picnics everyone is supposed to be together.” She then pushed him to the ground and proceeded to pull down his pants and underpants.  He recalled that this happened with most of the adults within viewing distance and with his cousins circling around him. Some stood in shock while others laughed.

Greg called this the most embarrassing moment in his life. Though his mother confronted her sister later about what she had done to Greg, he felt alone and disgraced. The young college man now cried recalling the story: “I couldn’t believe that no one came to help me.”

Greg was sexually violated in the presence of his entire family. While it’s hard to conclude whether there’s a connection between this incident and his insecurity with girls, there’s no question that the profound pain inflicted on him left him with an open wound many years later.

Greg’s aunt should have been stopped immediately and confronted for her actions by everyone involved—and particularly the adults. But Greg could not recall a single one of the more than twenty adults who were present coming to his aid or stopping her. The story exemplifies how easy it is to avoid, ignore, or overlook and thereby tolerate occasions of abuse that may have devastating effects on children—whether because of the fear of confronting another or challenging the group mind.  Inaction in the face of abuse makes us complicit to that abuse. When we fail to recognize the impact of wrong behavior, we fail to act in situations when our children need us most.

Stories are regularly in the news about kids failing to intervene and act responsibly on the playground when a bully or group abuses a targeted child, yet studies confirm that adults, in general, do not have a markedly stronger record of demonstrating strength and moral conscience when being confronted by injustice.  What about you?  Can you recall situations when you felt like Greg?  His aunt?  Or the family onlookers?  Would you respond to the situation differently if such a circumstance occurs before you?  How do you guide and model intervening in such circumstances for your children?

John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D., is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of How to Talk With Your Kids About Sex that explains what kids need from parents at each stage of their sexual development and how parents can effectively communicate For more information please visit www.dr.chirban.comhttps://www.facebook.com/drchirban and https://twitter.com/drjohnchirban