Understanding the Warning Signs of Adults

By The VIRTUS® Programs

As caring adults, we can create a safer world when we work together as a community. This includes maintaining an awareness of the behavior of all adults within our programs and ministries, including our own. Recall step one from the Protecting God’s Children® Program, Know the Warning Signs of Adults (or, just Know the Warning Signs depending on which version of the training you completed). Knowing the warning signs of adults means that we can recognize inappropriate actions and behaviors adults exhibit with children. And, we can identify boundary violations and possible grooming, taking action before they can escalate to possible abuse. Boundaries are limits, or lines that separate our personal space, emotions and behaviors from others. Children, especially, are harmed when their boundaries are violated—regardless of whether it is intentional or not.

Keep your eyes open for concerning or inappropriate behavior. Some possible warning signs of adult behavior include when the adult:

  • Discourages other adults from participating or monitoring.
  • Attempts to be alone with, or isolates, children from others.
  • Seems more excited to be with children than adults.
  • Gives gifts to children, without permission.
  • Goes overboard touching, wrestling, tickling, etc.
  • Uses bad language or tells inappropriate or sexual jokes to children.
  • Behaves or speaks as if the rules do not apply to them (ignores policy, bends rules).
  • Allows young people to engage in activities parents would not allow.
  • Tells children to keep secrets from others.
  • Takes, posts or shares photos of children without the parent’s or the organization’s approval.
  • Shows young people sexual content or pornography (which is not just a warning sign of inappropriate behavior. It is also illegal, and considered to be abuse in most states).

If an adult is exhibiting a warning sign (or multiple warning signs), it does not automatically make the person an abuser—and we shouldn’t assume that the person is an abuser. In fact, they could have a poor understanding of the boundaries or the rules. However, the behavior could be grooming and must be addressed. If you see or hear of a warning sign of inappropriate behavior, it is imperative to communicate the information to the program supervisor. These are behaviors that do not create a suspicion that a child is being abused—with the exception of when someone is showing a child or youth pornography or sexualized images. The reason that this particular warning sign is still on this list is because it is clearly a warning sign of inappropriate behavior—yet, it’s also much more than that and it would need to be reported to child protective services.

While we may not always know someone’s intentions, their behavior should speak for itself. Your specific role in protecting children begins with knowing the warning signs of inappropriate behavior. We must also acknowledge that our own behavior might be problematic and may need attention. Safe adults cannot behave in a way that conditions children to tolerate, or accept, inappropriate or boundary-violating behavior from others.

To ensure that adult interactions with youth are healthy and safe, we can use either the “P.A.N.” acronym (which means behavior should be Public, Appropriate and Non-Sexual), or the more robust “P.A.C.T.” acronym. This means we:

  • Prioritize safety. Safe adults prioritize safety—always, even when it might not be easy or convenient.
  • Act Appropriately (without the possibility of being perceived as sexual or romantic). Acting appropriately means that behavior is healthy and safe, for both the adult and those with whom they interact—and that the behavior must be such that it could not be perceived as sexual or romantic from the point of view of a rational person. Even if the behavior is intended to not be sexual or romantic, the perception of their behavior when juxtaposed with the policy and code of conduct will always bear more weight.
  • Consistently follow the Policies (behaving with transparency). Consistently follow the policies and behaving with transparency in actions and communication, at all times, means behavior is in line with diocesan requirements.
  • Commit to working Together (to follow the five steps). Meeting this requirement involves following the diocesan Code of Conduct or ethical standards, as well as the policies and procedures of your organization/diocese. Committing to working together is perhaps the most important element of “P.A.C.T.”, because when caring adults are following the five steps, they are automatically implementing a “PACT” to protect children and youth.

Recall all of the five steps from the Protecting God’s Children Program:

  1. Know the Warning Signs of Adults (or, also referred to as, Know the Warning Signs)
  2. Screen and Select Employees and Volunteers (or, Control Access through Screening)
  3. Monitor All Environments, including Activities Involving Technology (or, Monitor All Ministries and Programs)
  4. Be Attentive to Children and Youth (or, Be Aware of Child and Youth Behavior), and,
  5. Communicate Your Concerns

By upholding boundaries and following appropriate behavior as safe adults, we are contributing to a safe environment for children, youth and the vulnerable—and for ourselves, too. This is not something that any one of us can implement on our own—it takes every caring adult within our communities to all join together in the mission of keeping children and youth safe. Thank you for all that you do to contribute to a safe environment, here, in the context of our various ministries, and beyond, in our homes and communities. Children are safer because of your commitment.


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