"Concern About Sexual Abuse"
: I hope you can help me with my very serious problem. This evening, my 5-1/2-yr-old daughter asked me to use some Desitin on her. I use it on her 9-month-old sister and I used it on her one other time recently when she had been too rough with her washcloth.
I noticed she was red and asked her about it. She was very uncomfortable and said she didn't want to talk about it. I reassured her that she could talk about anything to me. She said her 12-year-old babysitter was rubbing her 'wee-wee' and that they were pretending that my daughter was having a baby.
This girl's mother picks my daughter up on Thursdays to participate in a library program in town; after the program, the mother takes the girls to her home for a couple of hours. I believe they were left unattended for the majority of that time. I live less than a mile away and felt like she was in good hands. My daughter says this is the first time anyone ever touched her like that. I told her what this girl did was inappropriate and that no one is allowed to touch her like that.
I'm afraid discussing this much further with my daughter will do more harm than good. However, I need some suggestions for how to confront this child's mother about this. I am very angry that I trusted her and now my innocent child has been seriously violated. I never expected this sort of behavior from this older girl; she attends our church and has always seemed very maternal to my daughter. This girl is old enough to know that what she did was unacceptable. What should I do?
Your concern, fear, anger and sense of betrayal are very normal in this situation. When we are confronted with the possibility that our child has been violated, it brings up our worst anxieties. We may feel may feel scared, confused and helpless that despite all of our best planning and protection, we haven't been able to ensure our own child's safety in the world.
Your caution about discussing it more with your daughter is useful. It can be important to get more information, sort out your own feelings, and think about the experience from your daughter's viewpoint before talking further with her. What you said was absolutely appropriate.
While your desire to keep your daughter safe in the world is your central mission, it is also important to realize that the older child who was involved is also a child who needs protection and maybe, some help.
With the limited information you have, there are several possible explanations about what happened-some fairly benign and others more troublesome. It is common for 12-year olds (and also many 5-year-olds) to have lots of questions about their bodies, each other's bodies, sexuality, and reproduction. Many children engage in looking at and touching each other's bodies as they try to learn about themselves. Children also pretend to do various parts of reproduction or "marriage." They may get under the covers together to pretend they are married. Children often put dolls up their shirts to pretend they are pregnant and many children try to enact giving birth by simply popping the doll out from their shirt to a more complex play where they lie down so the baby can come out from between their legs.
A 12-year-old's curiosity about giving birth is normal. The fact that she involved a 5-year-old in her experimenting is inappropriate, but is not necessarily an indication that she was trying to hurt or take advantage of the younger child. If the reason for her action was curiosity, she needs information about her own body and about reproduction, and also about her responsibilities when she is caring for a younger child.
A more troublesome explanation for the 12-year-old's behavior is that she herself has been a victim of inappropriate information, touch or sexual abuse. Given the kind of play that your daughter described,this is not necessarily the most likely scenario, but one possibility to be aware of.
It is important in situations like this to get as much information as possible and to make sure that both children aren't hurt more by the "investigation" than they might have been by the encounter. It is also important to provide support to both children and their parents during the process, and to work towards the future safety of both children.
Here are some things to think about as you consider what to do next:
. Talk to the parents of the twelve-year old. It is important for the adults to share the information they have with each other. Remember that they are as concerned about the well-being of their daughter as you are of yours. Even if their daughter's behavior was innocent, they are likely to feel upset, defensive or responsible.
When bringing it up with the girls' parents, it is useful to do it in a non-blaming, but information-seeking manner. You might say something like: "I wanted to check in with you about some play our children have been doing. I noticed some redness on my daughter's vulva and she tells me that she and her daughter have been playing 'giving birth.' Do you know anything about what's been happening?" "We feel like it is really important that we get all the information we can so we know how best to respond to help both girls."
. Someone needs to talk to the 12-year-old. The older child has more information about what happened and also about her motivations. The challenging part is figuring out how to get accurate information from her given that she and/or the person talking to her may feel like she did something "wrong." Her parents are the most likely people to talk to her. If they feel unprepared or overwhelmed by their own feelings, it could be a good idea to get support from a therapist, counselor or trusted friend before they talk to her. If it is too difficult for them, they could arrange some counseling for their daughter.
. Both children need some follow-through. The important thing for your daughter is that she needs to know that she didn't do anything wrong. Your message to her already began to convey that. However, sometimes when we talk to the child who didn't initiate the sexual exploration, we talk about how inappropriate it was without also acknowledging that children are curious about their bodies. Often the younger child is curious and interested as well as being possibly scared and overwhelmed. When she gets the message that a horrible thing has happened, she may be confused about her own feelings of curiosity.
It is important that neither child gets the message that there is something wrong with her body, her curiosity, her emerging sexuality, or with reproduction. It is essential that both children learn that their questions about their bodies are healthy and natural and that there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to search out answers. This is also a time when personal boundaries can be reiterated. "This is your body and you have a voice in what happens with it."
. Follow up. Once it is determined what the older child's idea and motivation was, the appropriate follow-through for her can be developed. Regardless, she needs information about appropriate treatment of younger children and she also needs to be protected from being labeled or treated as a "bad person." It can be detrimental to a young person's sense of self to be labeled bad for an error in judgement. If she was merely curious, it is important that she gets access to the information she is looking for. Resources include talking to parents, therapists and other trusted adults, as well as books.
If it is determined that she has been a victim herself of inappropriate information or treatment, it is important that she is given the support and therapy she needs to heal from her experience and that steps are taken to prevent further harm both to her and to other children.
. Consider the relationship between the children. A first reaction to a situation like this may be to prohibit the children from seeing each other again. Depending on the issues the older child is dealing with, this might be the best solution. However, there are many more things to consider as well. If the relationship is important to both girls, it would be a shame to lose it. It would also be sad for both girls to feel like one mistake could cost them a whole relationship and to get the message that there is not way to problem-solve conflicts in relationships.
If the children and the families feel like they want to support the relationship, there are several possible ways to do that. The children could be allowed to play together with adult supervision. They could have time together on structured family outings or events. If it becomes clear that the older child understands her mistake and can demonstrate her ability to be responsible with the younger girl, she may eventually be trusted to be alone with her.
. Build towards health. Our increased awareness of child sexual abuse is an essential step towards keeping all children safe. However, sometimes in our zealousness to pursue the truth and prosecute offenders, the ordeal after the initial experience is far more traumatic than the experience itself. It is critical that we determine what falls under the category of slightly out-of-bounds childhood curiosity and what fall under the category of clear sexual abuse. Further, we need to keep in mind that many aggressors (including children and adolescents) are victims themselves.
You have the opportunity in this situation to take what happened seriously, but also reasonably. Getting information, insuring the safety of both children and maintaining empathy for all parties involved will be key towards successful resolution for both children.