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.