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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Inappropriate Play

Q. Our daughter is 7 years old and plays with a girl who is 10. The 10-year-old has sexually touched our daughter. Last year she asked our daughter to take off her underwear. I told her that this is inappropriate behavior and unacceptable.

She is sometimes bossy and threatens not to be a friend if she doesn't get what she wants (toys, etc.) I just found out that the 10-year-old puts her foot, somewhat hard, in the crotch area of my daughter. I am very worried about my daughter continuing to play with this girl. They have played together for years.

I have limited their playtime together and have tried to maintain close supervision. I have talked to my daughter about speaking up for herself and she is trying to be assertive. I feel somehow torn between protecting my daughter and trying to find a solution so that she can play with her friend. This 10-year-old's play (with dolls etc.) is often negative and often has sexual tones.

The 10-year-old has told my daughter that she is "sticky there" and that she rubs her stuffed animals there, too. At the moment, I have decided to forbid all contact between the two children aside from visits to the movie, park or an artistic activity once a week with my supervision.

The mother and father of 10-year-old have split up. The parents do not seem very kind or loving towards the girl. I am very concerned with the sexual touching/abuse (?) that this girl has already inflicted on my daughter. Is there anything you would recommend regarding my daughter's exposure to this girl? What are you thoughts?

A. While I don't know the source of all your information--reports from your daughter alone? actual observations? etc.--I do think the situation sounds potentially abusive, with respect to your daughter. It could turn out that this 10-year-old has been sexually abused herself--and may be acting out some of her own conflicts in very inappropriate, sexualized ways.

It also remains possible that this 10-year-old is sexually abusing or playing inappropriately with other children in the neighborhood. These may be good reasons to speak about this situation with the girl's mother or whoever is her legal guardian--it's possible that the girl's parents are not aware of her sexualized "play" behavior. Raising the subject with the guardian might allow this girl to get some professional help--as well as avert further inappropriate play with your daughter or other children. (You might expect some anger or denial on the part of the guardian).

With respect to your own daughter, teaching her to be assertive is fine, but probably will not protect her from a disturbed, exploitative, older girl. So, there may not be a solution of the type you would prefer--it may be that you simply need to prohibit your daughter from playing at all with this girl, though that may be difficult to enforce.

If you are seeing signs of anxiety, moodiness, temper tantrums, irritability, poor school performance, nightmares, or inappropriate social behavior on your daughter's part, an evaluation by a mental health professional with experience in the area of sexual abuse would be a good idea.

In the mean time, keeping communications open with your daughter and allowing her to speak openly about her feelings toward this girl is important--but keeping your daughter and this friend apart may be necessary, unless and until this 10-year-old gets some professional counseling.

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January 2004

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