When children explore each other’s bodies – teaching protective behaviour


A mother asks:

My question is regarding physical exploration between children. My little girl is 3.5 yrs and spends 1 day per week with my husband’s mother. On this day she often sees her cousins aged 5, 8, 11 and 13, all boys. She loves them all and has a fantastic time. I have noticed on a few occasions that when I go to pick her up she is alone in a room with the 8yr old and they are playing Dr’s and nurses. I don’t have a problem with this kind of curiosity and I am very honest about it with my daughter when she asks questions regarding our anatomy etc.  I have recently discovered through talking to my little girl that he has put his fingers inside her vagina. I don’t want to make it into a big deal and make either of them uncomfortable about their bodies or asking questions I just want to make sure it doesn’t turn into anything more than innocent exploration. I guess I am a bit concerned that he always takes her into another room away from everyone else and he obviously feels like they are doing something naughty. Should I be worried about this or am I overreacting?”

Pinky says: You are obviously feeling uncomfortable about the children’s ‘play’ and this is an ‘early warning sign’ that it’s not ok. Teaching children about personal safety includes helping them listen to their own body messages about what feels ‘comfortable’ or not.  Listen to your own heart – and YOUR early warning signals, and trust yourself.

While it’s one thing to be concerned about upsetting children, it is important to give children clear messages about personal safety. This cousin is a lot older than your little girl and he knows what’s acceptable and what’s over the line – this is why he is taking her into another room and initiating a Drs and Nurses game.

This isn’t ‘innocent exploration’ with this age gap – for instance, 2 three year olds wouldn’t be playing Drs and Nurses in this way.  It is your responsibility as a mother to protect your little girl. Three year olds don’t understand that they are being ‘coerced’ (8 year olds do understand that they are coercing a younger child). You do need to speak up and discuss this with adults who are caring for your daughter. This will be confronting and will take courage but doesn’t have to be done in any shameful way for either the carers or the children.

It’s important to teach little ones that body parts covered by bathing suits and mouths are not to be touched by people without their permission. Of course that is not the language to use with a three year old because they don’t yet fully understand the concept of ‘permission’ but you can model this by  asking your child’s permission to touch her and respecting her when she refuses kisses, tickles or a massage, for instance  – in fact you can start this with babies . You can also teach little ones to say “stop” when people touch her in ways she doesn’t feel comfortable with. You already have very good communication with your little girl , this is a great start for the lifelong message that ‘nothing is so awful, we can’t talk about it,’ whether this is a child’s fear about say, being bullied,  not wanting to jump in a pool that feels too deep or later, not wanting to get into a car with a friend who has been drinking or being  pressured by peers to try drugs.

Most sexual abuse starts with somebody the child knows and trusts, often an older child.  This 8 year old is still a little kid but he  may have been exposed to inappropriate video/ talk / pictures/ internet sites /behaviour that he is ‘exploring’ like this – this consideration needs to be explored by his parents. Perhaps he has heard or watched older brothers talking/watching movies/ searching internet sites that are  inappropriate for a child his age. Perhaps there have been discussions between kids at school.

Clear messages and supervision are important preventative measures to protect your little girl.  Otherwise, how is she to understand that it’s not OK for say, an adult, to touch her or for this child to ‘groom’ her into more  sexualised  behaviour – she shouldn’t be exposed to this ‘play’.

This needs to be backed up by adults supervising and making sure opportunities for this kind of play don’t happen. Nobody needs to say anything to the children (yet), but it is time for the adults to have a family discussion. Right now the best prevention is for the adults present to keep an eye open and distract the children – organise games that involve them all in a space that is within view.

Trust your feelings (your ‘early warning signs’) , brave up and talk to the other family members – perhaps get your husband to talk to his mum and sister if you feel that would be helpful.


Pinky has done protective  behaviours facilitator training with Victoria Police.

body imagechildren exploring bodiesplaying doctorsprotective behaviourssexual abuse
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  • Michelle

    Please please put a stop to this!! At similar ages my older cousin engaged in this kind of ‘play’ with me and I have clear memories of it, and the very uncomfortable feelings I experienced. My parents never took any kind of action although I know they suspected. It went on for years and as an adult I have needed therapy to work through it. I had migraines, felt ashamed of my body and ultimately became desensitized to body sensations. I also struggled with navigating my personal boundaries as a teenager, which meant that I allowed things to be done to me that I might not have otherwise. Please don’t dismiss this as innocent play and hope the kids will get past it or it will go away. Please follow Pinky’s advice and begin teaching your daughter those boundaries.. I wish my parents had..

  • Katie

    All strength and grace to you as you navigate this one. I am a paediatrician who has worked in child abuse and child mental health – Pinky is absolutely right that this is not ok and you need to protect your little girl. I am delighted to hear you listening to your little one – she disclosed to you in absolute trust, I love that your parenting of her has helped her to feel that safe. Talking about this with other adults involved may not be easy but, in my experience, is not always as bad as you fear. But absolutely something you need to do. Much love to you all.

  • Jamie

    That is not innocent play. That is molestation, and my guess would be that the 8 year old is also being molested by someone.

  • MW

    I have recently had my almost two-year old daughter say that a boy her age at daycare did the same thing. What are your thoughts on children of the same age? Thanks 🙂

  • shilpa hak

    this article has been written very thoughtfully and I laud you for it . In fact Pinky I really would like to have your books and seminars in India …your parenting style in very similar to what most people practice here

  • J.

    I went through this as a child. I was the younger girl and I had an older cousin and we played “doctors”. I didn’t think anything of it because we were “playing.” When you’re four years old you’re happy to get attention, even negative attention. Such behavior continued into my pre-teens. Again, I didn’t realize it was something wrong, thanks to the lack of health and sexual education. When the education finally came that’s when I put my foot down and stood up to my aggressors. I don’t have issues, it is something of my past which cannot be undone so there is no point in dwelling on it. Do I wish it were different? Yes. I wish my mom knew (she still doesn’t) and simply removed me from the situation. Don’t make a big deal about it, don’t scorn the child if they are too young to understand the situation. I simply wished she removed me from my cousins presence and let me grow up without him. As I grew up the aggression did turn physically abusive, not sexually, but it seemed like he held something against me well into our adult years. Long story short, and I think Michelle would agree, that these types of situations set off a chain reaction and the best thing is just to stop it in its tracks.

  • Mia Mantri

    I think someone needs to talk to the child doing this to find out why – is he being abused himself? While I agree with the points made in the article I think the message of telling a child it’s their body is lost by having parts of their body exposed and put online and on book covers. From reading what you have written I can see you really look out for the welfare of children and as someone who feels strongly about children’s rights I think that is admirable. However I think while people might say children have a right to their body, no-one thinks about a child’s right to keeping their body private. I speak about this in this blog I have written about a personal experience of mine http://miadotcom.wordpress.com/2012/12/02/how-being-forced-to-use-communal-changing-rooms-at-school-affected-me/

  • Mare

    I agree with everything that the author suggested, right up until she said nothing should be said to the kids, yet. The little boy needs to be talked to and find out what’s going on with him and he definitely needs to be told what is appropriate play. Her daughter needs to be talked to also about anyone touching her and what is and isn’t appropriate. I wouldn’t let my daughter play with him alone again. It will just keep escalating.