Navigating Trust: Identifying Safe Adults in Your Circle

In today’s world, ensuring your safety is about more than just being cautious around strangers. 90% of victims know their abuser. Often, the perpetrator is considered a “trusted” or “safe” adult. This could be a family member, friend, teacher, coach, or medical staff. 

Perpetrators can in fact be people we know and have trust in. This can be confusing as people we believe we can trust may be harmful. The adult in question may be pedestalled and/or an illusion of safety may exist around the space you are in. It may feel disrespectful or taboo to question their power, authority, or public reputation. Often, the most complicated NO to identify is the one closest to a YES. We have a much easier time discerning more blatant and obvious dangers, and more difficulty deciphering if a wolf is wearing sheep’s clothing.  

This post intends to help everyone discern who a “trusted” or “safe” adult is, understand red flags, and address the unfortunate scenario where all precautions fail, including what to do if someone you considered safe and trusted is no longer safe for you.

Understanding Who Are Trusted Adults or Safe People

Before diving into the characteristics of a trusted adult or safe person, it's essential to understand the significance of identifying these people in your life. Trusted adults are pivotal in providing support, guidance, and a sense of security. A “safe” or “trusted” adult has your best interest at heart and honors your well-being. 

Recognizing the traits of a trustworthy person empowers you to build healthy relationships and navigate life's challenges confidently. To make it more transparent, let's look at some characteristics of a trusted adult more closely. 

  • Belief and Support: Trusted adults authentically believe in you and your ability to achieve and support your dreams and aspirations. Their support of you extends to encouragement, making sure that they help guide you along the way when you need it the most. 
  • Open and Transparent Communication: Being seen and heard is a pillar of healthy relationships. A trusted adult who engages in transparent communication understands how valuable it is in creating a trusting and understanding environment. They participate in dialogue that is encouraging and supportive even in difficult situations. 
  • Respect of Boundaries: Engaging with a trusted adult should be free of pressure and secrets. Instead, they make it so that you do not feel uncomfortable with what they are saying or doing, and they make it evident by prioritizing your well-being. There are different types of secrets: fun secrets, potentially damaging secrets, and dangerous ones. Should a safe person ask you to keep a secret, it would be a fun secret like keeping a birthday celebration surprise. It will never be a secret that you can't eventually share.
  • Consistency and Stability: Reliability in behavior and actions is essential in identifying a trusted adult. Their actions are predictable based on the circumstances so that you will get appropriate interactions and responses based on the situation.
  • Feelings of Comfort and Care: When interacting with or thinking about a safe adult, you feel calm, protected, and at ease. This doesn’t mean that there are no disagreements or tension in the relationship, but if something comes up you are not questioning your security with that person. Your body feels relaxed, you are comfortable being yourself, you are not afraid. 

Determining Safe vs. Unsafe Adults

It's essential to strike a balance between giving the benefit of the doubt and ensuring our safety. Some red flags can be subtle, and others very obvious. Increasing awareness of these indicators helps us to be mindful and prepared. We should consider the particulars of a specific situation to determine whether we feel unsafe. 

  • Secrecy and Isolation: A typical red flag of someone who is untrustworthy is someone who subtly or insistently creates a dialogue around not being able to tell others what you spoke about or situations that have occurred. It is meant to keep you away from others so that you are ill-informed and is made to make you feel like there is no one else you can trust. An example of this would be having a teacher or coach insisting that a "special" private relationship exists and discouraging you from discussing it with friends or family. They may frame it as having a unique bond that others will not understand.  
  • Manipulative Tactics:  Manipulation is a way to control others by means of coercion, threats, or intimidation. It can look like but is not limited to keeping information from you or giving you wrong information, guilt-tripping, gaslighting, and social exclusion. This can look like an adult using guilt to coerce you into doing something against your will or that you are uncomfortable with, and they can use language like, "If you really cared for me, you would…"
  • Inappropriate Behavior: Inappropriate behavior does not only extend to unwanted touching but also to comments that make you feel uncomfortable or cross a boundary. This can look like a coach commenting on your appearance in a negative way or unwarranted physical contact. 
  • Fluctuating Temperament: This is the opposite of a trustworthy adult who is consistent and reliable. These people exhibit behaviors that are unpredictable, given the circumstances. This may make you feel like you don't know what mood the person will be in when you come into contact with them and may cause you stress and anxiety because of the unpredictability. 
  • Feelings of Discomfort and Confusion: When interacting with or thinking about an unsafe adult, you may feel tightness, sickness, tension, uneasy, shakey, or anxious. You may feel afraid, stiff, avoidant, or icky. These feelings may come and go. You may also feel confused as you may still like this person or know that others hold them in high regard. Your gut feeling however is telling you that something is not quite right.  

Not all of the descriptions and examples shared are easy to navigate. Some of the situations presented can have blurred boundaries, which becomes challenging, especially when they involve people in positions of authority or close relationships. Consider the details of each situation carefully and determine if what is being asked of you is necessary. If a situation makes you feel uncomfortable, you can seek support and clarification from an already trusted adult in order to gain clarity. These people can include parents, family members, doctors, counselors, therapists, and even law enforcement. Some situations may call for you to firmly establish a boundary; a safe person will respect the limit you have placed. 

It is essential to recognize that even with all of the knowledge about what constitutes an unsafe adult, no one is entirely immune to the possibility of harm. Access to a trustworthy person can change, and if you are harmed by anyone, know you are not to blame. When in doubt, trust your instincts and don't push through the uncomfortable feeling or situation. Consider seeking support by sharing your concerns and experiences with someone who can provide you with guidance. Remember that you have the right to prioritize your safety and security above all else. 

Kathryn McClain, MSW, MBA

Program and Partnerships Director at #WeRideTogether

Jennifer “Jenna” Almonte

Public speaker and educator for college students and parents on Sexual Violence Prevention

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