Remembering that a potential abuser is someone with the potential to abuse a child or already has and has the potential to be caught, it is extremely likely that, if you are noticing multiple warning behaviors, they are the behaviors of someone you know and trust. Having a conversation with this person about what you are seeing may seem overwhelming at first, but it is essential to keep it casual. You are not accusing them of abuse, you are just looking to help and to get more information about what you are seeing. You are not aiming for a confession, you are concerned about them and want to know if they need help with whatever is going on. They are not going to share any sensitive information with you if they feel they cannot trust you.
This may sound like an intervention, but it is not. If you are a parent, think of seeing your child come home from school one day and you can tell something is off. You do what any parent would do: You ask what is bothering them, if there is something you can help with, etc. Just the same, having a conversation with someone who is displaying these behaviors is not something you do to punish someone, make them feel threatened, or confront them at all. You are just looking for insight into them, and you want to know how to help.
Another fantastic guide to having these types of conversations is Stop It Now’s “How to Prepare for a Complex Conversation”. They are also available for questions via phone, email, and chat. There is also a Stop It Now! program in the UK and Ireland.
Despite popular myth, most people who sexually abuse children are not motivated by sexual pleasure and do not make the decision to abuse suddenly. Their choice is a complex web of needs, emotions, and issues that they are trying to fulfill with sexual pleasure. This holds true for those that look at child sexual abuse images as well.
The process to viewing child sexual exploitation material, or to sexually abusing a child, is always a process, and that process takes anywhere from several weeks to several years. People do not wake up one morning and decide they will molest a child. That means there is plenty of time to intervene if you know what to look for. For more information about this process, please see the facts section on potential abusers.
When I use the term, "potential abuser", I am referring to someone who is in this process. The point to having a conversation is to intervene in that process and get the person to the help that they need so that a child is not abused in the first place. The conversation is not about coddling sex offenders, because at that point, they are not yet sex offenders and it is unknown if they have abused a child at all. The conversation is also not about labeling or accusing people.
The point to having a conversation is to have the potential abuser hear, fully and completely, that you care about them and that you want to help them. They will likely not be able to hear that you are concerned about children's safety, even if that is also true, so comments about how risky it is for them to be around children are not going to be helpful and should be avoided. They will not be perceived as helpful and will likely be a trigger for most people. They will know you are suspicious, and they will believe you are not a safe person to talk to.
This is a brief overview, and the detailed version can be found at Getting Help: For Someone Else.
The first thing to remember is that your suspicions may or may not be true. There could be a valid explanation for what you are seeing, or maybe what you are seeing is not cause for concern. However, you do not know which it is just yet. Write down some of the things you have seen that concern you. Stick to three situations you can recite, and tell the person that this is what you have observed, and tell them that you want to understand what you are seeing. Period, end of sentence. Do not ask leading questions, just let them explain it and let them take the floor. Plan what you will say and ask beforehand. Take deep breaths, and make sure you are calm and collected. Do not make it about children, make it about understanding them.
Their explanation could make sense, or it might be complete nonsense. Pay close attention to what they say, how they say it, and what their body language is. Are they confident in their answer? Are they nervous? Are they confused? Scared? Try to identify how they are feeling, or ask how they are feeling. If they cannot identify how they are feeling, or they are nervous or scared, you need them to know that you are concerned about them, full stop. You are not asking out of concern for the child (well, you are, but they do not need to know that at this point, as they likely cannot hear it), you are asking because you want to help them. They can trust you. They can tell you if something is bothering them, no matter what it is. Again, that is what they need to hear.
Bear in mind before you start the conversation that most sexual abusers who are known to have abused a child are not pedophilic, or sexually attracted to children, but are just otherwise ordinary adults or juveniles wrestling with life issues, and a child is just a convenient sexual outlet for those frustrations. The answers you receive may have nothing to do with sex, but could be risk factors... or not. Your purpose is just to gain more insight and more information. You are not an expert, and you are just looking to help them.
Where the conversation goes from the start of the conversation depends completely upon you and the situation. If the answers they are giving are making sense, but are not cause for concern, then get help understanding their answers. Ask them to clarify anything you do not understand, and be honest in telling them that you are not sure you quite understand. Make sure to ask how they are feeling. After the conversation, write down what their answers were as you remember them, and talk with a trusted friend about the conversation, and ask if it makes sense.
If the conversation is not making sense, or their answers seem disjointed or out-of-touch with reality, you must be sensitive to the idea that they may not trust you with what is really going on. This could be a sign that they did something embarrassing, or that something illegal happened, true, but it can also be a sign that more is going on than what they are saying. They could be hiding from talking to you for any number of reasons, both for normal protection, and for covering up inappropriate behavior.
It is often beneficial to stop the conversation. Say, "It seems that this is making you uncomfortable. Could we talk about this later? I just want to help you." Sometimes, getting to the heart of what you are seeing can take several conversations, and it can take time for the person to trust that you mean them well. Many issues are very uncomfortable to talk about, even if there is no risk of sexual abuse involved. It is possible that the child knows something deeply personal and is blackmailing the adult. It is possible that the adult did something offensive and rude, and wants to make amends somehow. There are many possibilities besides sexual abuse or a risk of sexual abuse.
Before you start these conversations, know what resources are available in your area. Know what therapists specialize in major mental health needs, such as sexual needs, emotional needs, compulsive behaviors, eating disorders, or personality disorders. Have several clinics in mind that can take on new patients or make recommendations for resources. In the “Getting Help” section, you can click on “For Yourself”, and the two sections “I Like Kids” and “Lots Of Stress” have some of these materials while less specific issues, such as resources for depression or anxiety, can be found with a simple internet search.
Also, have a conversation with a close friend of the potential abuser, and ask them about the conversations you are having. They may have more insight into what you are seeing and hearing from these conversations. An additional perspective besides your own is extremely beneficial. If, after these conversations, you still feel off in your gut, or something is still nagging at you, write it down.
If, during the course of these conversations, you discover that a child has been abused, you are encouraged to visit this page and report it.
You can also utilize the resources at Stop It Now! (or the UK and Ireland Stop It Now!) by calling them during their business hours, email them, or chat with them on their website by clicking "Get Immediate Help" at the bottom of their page.