An Anonymous Parent’s Story
*Courtesy of Stop It Now!
Last week my three-year-old told me that an 8-year-old friend exposed himself to her. His family frequently takes care of my little girls. His aunt (guardian) was very concerned and took the situation seriously. She discussed it with him and he eventually confessed to exposing himself to both my three-year-old and a five-year-old friend as well.
We are out of our depth in terms of knowing how to handle this situation well. When we discussed the issue with our husbands, they seemed unconcerned, although I think they would be willing to help intervene if they knew what to do. After doing some research, I feel strongly that this is an opportunity to address this situation in a positive way and hopefully keep worse things from happening in the future. I am concerned about the message we will send this boy if it seems we are brushing it under the rug. Sadly, we don’t know what he has been through, as he did not live with my friend until he was 6. It seems that he is less concerned about his actions than he should be, and I don’t know how to help him understand this is serious in an age-appropriate way.
Any advice and/or resources you could pass along would be very helpful.
I’m sorry to hear that this happened to your daughter, but it’s really fantastic that she spoke up and let you know. I’m so glad that you’re reaching out to us for guidance on how to handle this in a caring, compassionate, and age-appropriate way with everyone involved.
You’re right that this is concerning because of the age gap, and because this play wasn’t mutual. However, it’s important to understand that children’s sexual behaviors are very different than those of adults. He may know he was doing something wrong, but he may not fully understand why or how it could hurt the other children. Our guidebook Do Children Sexually Harm Other Children? has more information on this complex topic.
I’m wondering, have you noticed any of other “Signs A Child Is At-Risk to Harm Another Child” in his behavior? I don’t think that he necessarily will go on to harm – or even intends to harm – his friends, but may need some additional help in understanding appropriate boundaries. There are a number of reasons why a child may engage in sexually inappropriate behavior including: misinformation, confusion about boundaries, exposure to mature content (like pornography), because of an impulse control problem or disability, due of another stressor (divorce, death in the family), or trauma like their own abuse. As you say that he was previously in a different home situation, does he have any supports (like a therapist) currently? It sounds like he may have been through a lot in his young life, and it’s never a bad idea to get a counselor involved to help. His doctor, pediatrician, and our page on Finding and Choosing Professional Treatment and Supports are all good places to look for a referral.
Children are still learning about empathy and how they can and should interact with others in a healthy way. A child explores with boundaries – both personal and sexual – because they’re still navigating what is appropriate, and discovering themselves and others. Helping this boy learn to follow the rules in the household, and also how to look at another child’s expression (face/body language) can help minimize sexual harm both now and in the future.
Just because he broke a body boundary rule doesn’t mean that he’ll continue to do so, but for now it would be a good idea to re-establish safety and continue to be on the lookout for any ongoing concerns regarding appropriate behavior. New rules don’t have to be punishment, but it would be important for this aunt to review her Family Safety Plan – and you may want to in your home too. Just like you both may have rules about when to go to bed and when homework must be finished by, it is also important to have rules about body safety. Part of safety planning also involves giving children age-appropriate information about their own body, and their peers’ bodies too.
Some families have rules like: adults and children always play with our clothes on, with doors open, and we keep our hands to ourselves. The places we cover with a bathing suit are private. There is only one person behind a closed bathroom door, and we always knock before entering. If anyone is ever asking about your private parts, talking to you about theirs, or if anyone ever makes you feel uncomfortable or scared, it is important to speak up to a trusted adult. If any child were to break a rule you would educate, redirect and then give a consequence similar to one given when a rule like lying or hitting were broken. For now, it would be a good to have an adult around to monitor this child’s interactions with peers or younger children, as this will ensure caregivers are in a position to intervene if there are any future concerns. For more information, check out the following resources:
- Ten Things To Remember When You Talk To Kids About Sexuality
- Why Healthy Sexuality is an Important Part of Safety Planning
You’re right that this child may not be “taking it as seriously” as you all, as he doesn’t see his sexual behaviors from the same point of view as an adult. In regards to following up with him, this aunt can let her child know that what he did was not safe because it broke a body boundary rule (we always keep our hands and bodies to ourselves), but then discuss how he can play safely with his friends. It’s normal and healthy for him to be curious about his own and other people’s bodies, but never okay to show, touch, or ask someone else to touch his genitals – or for someone to do that to him either. There are other ways for him to satisfy his curiosity safely, like by looking at an age-appropriate book about his own healthy sexual development. Perhaps she can offer some age-appropriate books to him.
(Please refer to our Parent 2 Parent “Resource” page for ideas about books!) (LINK)
I’m curious, how has your daughter been doing? As each child reacts differently to events like these, please be on the lookout for any changes in her mood, behavior or development like these warning signs in children of possible abuse, and follow up as needed with her pediatrician. It sounds like you may have already been doing some great safety planning in your home too, but please feel free to explore and share our resources with your family as well.
Finally, it would also be important to talk to this other parent (the 5 year-old) if no one has notified them about what’s happened so they’re able to take any appropriate steps for their child, too.
I hope this information has been helpful, and I truly appreciate you reaching out to us on behalf of these children’s safety. If you have any further questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact us again. Take care.
Parent’s Response to Stop It Now!
Thank you so very much for your response. I just read it through, and will follow up with the resources you included. Hopefully I can use this information to work with all the other parents involved as well. I cannot thank you enough for taking the time to read and respond to my email.
My son was 15 at the time of the incident. He requested and received nudes from a classmate three weeks before her 15th birthday. Since she was below the age of consent he was charged with multiple felonies. Though sexting is common among high school freshman, neither my son nor us, his parents, knew it was illegal. I knew he was doing this, and I had taken his phone away for a month after having seen the occasional boob picture on his phone 6 months prior to this happening. I’m a single mom and though his father is very much in his life, I took the sexting far more seriously than his father did. As a woman I related to the misogynist culture of sexting and tried to get both my kids to respect themselves and others enough to not buy into it. I reacted in all ways, from long emotional discussions to swift punishments and anger. I am sure understanding children and teenage sexuality isn’t easy for any parents, but in an age of cell phones we are wading through situations we ourselves have no experience with, especially not when we were teens.
The fact that sexting is common and even adults regularly do it may make my son’s crime less stigmatized and shameful. It was still horrendous. He was kicked out of school but we didn’t move, so all of the neighbors and friends he went to school and played sports with asked what happened. Some pretty much turned around and ran away if I told them. I found myself shopping for groceries at different places and eating out at different places to not run into people. People we knew my kids’ entire lives I still avoid rather than explain the situation. I work near where we live, and so this news certainly didn’t help my business.
My son’s crime is committed by an estimated 30-50% of freshmen in high school. Maybe half of those freshman are under the age of 15, like my son’s victim. If she were three weeks older the sexting would not have been the crime he was charged with, which was child pornography.
My son’s actions didn’t make me, as a feminist single mom, proud. He was using the girl. He coerced her into sending the photos. I can’t and won’t dismiss the lack of respect he showed her, and the callous nature of his request. He behaved in a misogynist, entitled way. I was shocked, and hurt, and horrified. I don’t want to say what he did was no big deal. But my son didn’t touch the girl, didn’t share and didn’t even keep the photos.
The Problem with One-Size-Fits-All
I believe that having all sexual crimes treated as the same is a real problem of the system. Sex offender treatment is far too much one size fits all. What my son did is a common behavior that unfortunately is widespread throughout our society, with an age appropriate post-puberty girl from school. I do not believe this fits into the same treatment mold as adolescents who have molested young children. It was concerning to me that my son had to spend so much time with boys that committed crimes that were far beyond his own. Equating sexting an age-appropriate peer with violent child rape doesn’t make sense at any level, yet that is what happens.
Once you are in the system, it is next to impossible to get out. And violating probation can be so easy you might not even be aware you are doing it. My son had 3 violations of his probation. None of his violations were illegal, or even bad if he hadn’t been on probation. He couldn’t leave the house per his probation, so of course he broke the rules all the time. I think I have PTSD from the stress of the whole situation. If I wasn’t in his court fighting for him every step of the way, he would have never successfully completed his probation. That isn’t right. A lot of kids don’t have a mom like me.
I am sure that my son was released, 9 months after he was sentenced, because of my actions. I am sure that everyone wanted me to go away. Now that my son is released I only have more time and more desire to advocate for juveniles’ rights in the system.
What would have been helpful to me? Only other stories from other parents who had similar experiences to my son’s. There were two moms I did chat with a little, and one mom shared what the situation had done to her entire family, and though the story was sad it helped me to not feel so alone in the nightmare that tore apart our lives.
Here are some of the things I would want to tell other parents and families who might be in a similar situation to mine. Sex offender probation is difficult for everyone in the family; just try the best you can to be supportive of your child and let your anger go. Listen to your child if they want to vent about frustrations, and try to get them to view things with empathy.
Once court cases are over you still need to advocate for your child. Make sure what is happening in treatment and probation is what is supposed to be happening. Stay in touch with all treatment providers and ask questions. Support your child to move through the program.
Know your child’s rights. Treatment facilities that include a lot of villainizing and shaming of the kids are not acting ethically. Rules and statutes for licensed behavioral health practitioners are online under the state licensing board website. Learn what to expect. Treatment is about rehabilitation, not punishment.
If your child is not cooperating with treatment or hasn’t accepted responsibility for their crime you must try to get them to understand how this is hurting themselves and everyone in the family. Above all, make sure they know you will still love them.
A Troubling Beginning
I have been trying to figure out where to start. I guess I have mixed feelings on this. I have done my best to raise my daughter with Christian values. I thought she would turn out better than me.
In January of my daughter’s 6th grade, a police detective called stating he wanted to talk with J. and asked if we could come by the Child Advocacy Center. He explained there was a reported incident between J., another girl and a boy; apparently there was an accusation that the boy was forceful with the other girl. Supposedly J. was peer pressured into giving oral sex to the boy. J. was also starting to act out around this time period, so I took advantage of the counseling they offered. J. would not participate. She could sit there and say nothing. She lost most of her friends around 5th -6th grade. By 8th grade we put her in a special school.
By March of her 8th-grade year J., previously a B-student, was failing all her classes. J. showed a derogatory note that was put into her locker to our church youth leader. The part that hit me the hardest was the first line: “I can’t wait to see you dead and buried.” I went to the school the very next day. The school insisted the letter did not match the handwriting of the girl who had signed the letter, and that it was J. who wrote the letter. I told the school I did not care who wrote it; if it was written by another student then J. was at risk. If J. wrote it then she was crying out for help. Either way we needed to keep her safe. The only option was to try to send her to a special program for problem children. Her principal said, “[That’s] just moving the problem,” but it made a big difference that year. She ended up passing with B average. The following year she did even better.
J. developed a couple friendships with “problem children.” She began babysitting in 11th grade when a woman from church said she needed someone to help out. Her son had gotten in trouble for inappropriately using the internet and couldn’t be alone. I agreed J. could help her out. I thought the boy, TJ, was 9 or 10, but I found out after the fact he was 12. Things were going well. J. started babysitting for her.
In December J. said she was not going to babysit anymore, but the lady called again asking if J. could help her out. J. said she could only babysit if [a friend] could go with her. I did not realize this was when the sudden change occurred. From this time forward J. brought a friend or her sister with her every time she babysat. I did not like her bringing a friend, but she had an excuse every time.
About a month later J. was accused of raping TJ.
Then police detective came to our house to talk with J. There was a male detective and female office in the car. I specifically asked: is J. in trouble? It was not long that they got out of the car and informed use they were arresting our daughter. J. was crying saying she was sorry. The officer advised us that she was being arrested for inappropriate sexual contact with a minor; they had heard was TJ had touched J. and was allowed to put his penis up against her panties. They had to act because J. allowed it.
It was a whirlwind. The detective told me I could get a hold of a bondsman and start the process to see if we could get her out on bond. By the time they brought her to the judge we would know if we could get her out of jail. The detective made it sound like they were going to book her and bring her straight to court.
I had no idea how to find a bondsman. I immediately went to a lawyer I knew, and his office told us of two lawyers and advised us to call either before we did anything else. The lawyer told us the best thing we could do is advise J. not to say a word to anyone. He also said it would be in her best interest to get her out as quickly as possible.
I tried to find were J. was, but I was given the runaround. It was a couple hours before I finally heard from Jean. She was at the court house. She was charged with rape.
Later I found out they left our house and brought her down to the station. They grilled her for a statement. She spilled everything. J. told me TJ frequently grabbed her breasts, tried kissing her and made comments. He would not leave her alone. She finally conceded, took off her pants and let him touch her so he would stop. She said when he put his penis up against her she got nervous and made him stop. She also admitted she kissed his penis a couple times. J. said this is why she stopped babysitting him, and why she never went back there alone. J. blamed TJ for initiating. However she admitted it was consensual.
Since the time she was initially charged most of her friends stopped talking to her. They did not even try to find out if there was any truth to the charges. I also felt the impact of the charges. Some people offered their support. The other side blamed me for allowing J. to babysit a 12-year-old.
Struggles with Blame and Shame
I still struggle with conflicting emotions. Part of me feels this is unfair. J. has been made an outcast. She is immature. She made a stupid mistake. But it was not much different than two kids experimenting. I believe she never meant to harm him. No matter what changed in the details, the one thing that was consistent was that TJ initiated everything. Part of me feels like J. should have known better regardless. She has been taught about sex. She has been taught about right and wrong. If she were innocent she had plenty of opportunities to speak up before the detective showed up.
In the process I think I have blamed everyone. I blamed J. for all the obvious reasons. I blame myself for not investigating things better. I should have been aware of the boy’s age. I should not have let her talk to the detective without a lawyer. I blamed the boy’s mother. She should have called me when this came to light. If she knew he had issues then she should have told me. She should not have let a 17-year-old watch him.
As a mother of two girls, I have tried to look at this from a different angle. If my daughter were the younger child/victim and the boy were the aggressor, how would I feel? I would not have had someone babysitting so close in age. If they had sex I would get the kids and the other parent together and find out what happened. Was this experimenting or was this a “rape”?
A Troubling Beginning
Sometimes we try so hard to protect our children against childhood sexual abuse (CSA) that we can encourage the opposite instead. I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse that occurred when I was 14. My son and I just concluded a year-long therapeutic rehabilitation, after it was discovered that he had engaged in repeated inappropriate sexual behavior with his younger cousin at the age of 11 and 12.
This was the last thing on earth I expected would happen as a result of my efforts to bolster his self-esteem, hoping CSA would never happen to him. I think what happened instead was that I unwittingly contributed to a sense of entitlement on his part. In my effort to make him less susceptible to abuse by others I inadvertently gave him permission to abuse others.
Of course, this was never my intention. It’s important to point out how easy it was for me to blame myself for my son’s transgressions. I had to learn how unfair and debilitating that was to me. I had to accept that I did not cause his inappropriate behavior, even as it is valuable to consider how my empowerment may have contributed to his inappropriate choices.
Being a parent is difficult on so many levels. For me, I hoped my encouraging him to develop a healthy self-esteem would result in his not seeking acknowledgment and validation from potential child molesters. I still believe this is an important component in preventing CSA. But it must be accompanied by prevention techniques like empathy training and CBT skill building if it is to have the positive impact that is intended.
I’m happy to report that through his (our) rehabilitation process, my son is no longer spoiled, entitled or confused about the consequences of his actions. Through the efforts of great therapists he has been able to deeply consider the consequences of his actions and determined never to violate another’s sacred right to control their own body. He has become more empathetic and considerate. While he is aware of his powerful ability to coerce others, which can be an asset in certain contexts, he has learned that sometimes, instead of acting on this impulse to control and manipulate, it is better to take a sincere interest in learning about others. Instead of trying to get them to do what he wants for his own selfish gain he has developed skills in listening and compassion.
This terrible incident, as tragic as it was, and the excellent, regular therapy that resulted, has transformed my son; indeed, our whole family.
I can’t emphasize enough how important good communication and a commitment to the hard work of therapy is to preventing and stopping the scourge of CSA.
My concern is his cousin, the child he violated, has not received therapy he needs. All I can do is pray that his parents get him the help he needs. What I know is that my son will now be the cousin that he needs to be, in his healing process, when the time comes for reconciliation.
I’m not sure what the answer is, or what advice I might give to others who find themselves in a similar situation. But I know that openness and trust are the most important tools in dealing with these inappropriate sexual feelings. These impulses lead to chaos and suffering when ignored or swept under the rug. I think in my son’s case, these inappropriate feelings and impulses tended to stem more from a desire to control others then from any aberrant sexual desires. Sexual feelings are complex and intense, no doubt, but the mechanisms of self control can be learned and practiced.