Question about "adult" behavior by children
July 17, 2013 9:53 AM   Subscribe

How disturbed should we be by our 5-year-old's sexual behavior toward her father?

So our daughter has recently started behaving sexually in the direction of her father. She started masturbating a while ago and we didn't think much of it. If we saw it, we just directed her toward 'private time'. Sometimes she lies on the couch and masturbates while watching cartoons. If we come into the room, she stops. If we catch her unawares, we tell her it's for private time.

We (I -- mom) have told her that it's okay to touch herself, but that nobody else is allowed to unless they're the doctor or helping her pee or something. I've told her its a private thing. I didn't deliver a lecture about this. I think we have a pretty healthy attitude about sex and about the sexuality of kids, namely that it's to be respected and guided a little (please don't masturbate in the living room) but pretty much left alone as a normal and healthy thing.

Lately she's done two things that have freaked us out a little. She tried to get her father to touch her vulva by saying 'Put your hand on my [household word for vulva*], Daddy.'

Then the other morning she crawled on top of him in bed in the AM and started (I hate saying this) grinding on him.

Both of these instances happened when I wasn't around, and she has not engaged in that behavior with me. Dad's quite freaked out by this and very uncomfortable but it sounds to me like he handled it well, by saying No and cutting the interactions short. But we're not sure how alarmed to be. This isn't the first time, but these two instances were the most clear and overt.

How weird is this? I understood that sexual behavior in young children was pretty ordinary unless it involved others - that that was when you started to wonder whether a child was being molested. Is this accurate? Should we be worried? Even if we shouldn't be worried, how should we address this?

We do not think anyone is abusing her, or has the opportunity. She is very healthy, strong, confident, funny, intelligent, and has many interests. She doesn't have any unusual neuroses or fears and seems very comfortable with herself, her body, and the world.

For right now, I'm looking for the actual experience of other parents. She will be going to a pediatrician shortly anyway, but I want to know how unusual this is. I tried to Google this, but as you can imagine, it was nightmarish.

*Left out because it's identifying, but it's just a silly term.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
At that age it really is (in my observation as a parent, IANADoctor) just a sensual thing, pleasurable in the same sense as food and tickling and popsicles. She may have an awareness through observation that the pleasures her parents have deemed ok but private are ones that involve a male and female (in her world). So she's going to the male she knows. So just continue to stress the private nature of it, and have your husband calmly and persistently say "no that's not appropriate, stop doing that" just like he would say "no, eating popsicles before dinner isn't ok" or "no, I said to stop tickling me."
posted by headnsouth at 10:08 AM on July 17, 2013

Totally not a professional here. But a dad of a little girl. I think if it's just libidinal acting out, then there isn't anything to worry about. Deflecting, talking about appropriate contexts for sexual behavior, and reinforcing boundaries--all the stuff you're already doing--seems like the best course. If she shows specific knowledge of sexual practices, vocabulary she didn't learn from you, or if she seems withdrawn or emotionally volatile, then I'd be very concerned.

The key term we're using with our daughter is "private" since it seems minimally shame-inducing. Not much forethought to it. It was the first thing that came to mind when my kid poked me in the groin.

Good luck and if you're still worried, don't hesitate to talk to your pediatrician. I'm sure they've seen it all.
posted by R. Schlock at 10:09 AM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think it's normal for kids to be curious about sexuality and sometimes interact with others (i.e., it doesn't automatically imply they have been molested). I can see why you would be freaked out, but until the pediatrician can give you more specific information/reassurance, I would just chalk it up to exploration and draw some really additional firm boundaries for her. Sounds like she just didn't know it wasn't OK, and I'm sure it won't happen again once you make it clear that it cannot. Good luck with this. Sounds stressful.
posted by ravioli at 10:09 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Even if we shouldn't be worried, how should we address this?

I would frame it in terms of body autonomy. She needs to learn not to touch people who don't want to be touched (just like other people shouldn't touch her if she doesn't want it). I might say something to her like, "It's okay to touch your [body part] in private, just like we talked about. But grown-ups like Daddy don't like to touch little girls that way. Daddy's body is private, too, and if he asks you to stop, please stop." Then with the grinding, etc., just reiterate that Daddy doesn't like to be touched that way and to please not touch him. I'd probably redirect her, too. "Please don't touch me that way. Would you like to go get some breakfast?"
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:11 AM on July 17, 2013 [43 favorites]

Mod note: From the OP:
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posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:35 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Don't be freaked out. Totally normal, and this is your opportunity to teach your child about body autonomy, their own and others'. PhoBWanKenobi's advice is spot on.
posted by davejay at 10:37 AM on July 17, 2013

Sometimes little ones innocently explore what feels good in ways that freak us out. The other day my toddler took off all her clothes, ran around outside, hopped up on a stepstool, waggled her bottom at us and demanded that we spank it. I am... VERY VERY sure that she has never heard of or seen anyone behaving in this way, and can't imagine where it came from, except that I guess it feels good to her? (Offering this anecdote in solidarity from one bewildered and appalled parent to another.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:55 AM on July 17, 2013 [8 favorites]

I am not ashamed to say it: I was molested as a child (I was 5) and I started doing this because I didn't know it was inappropriate.
posted by brownrd at 10:56 AM on July 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

Could it be possible that she has a UTI or yeast infection? I think I would definitely take her in for a check up with her pediatrician.
posted by dawkins_7 at 11:04 AM on July 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

I don't know-- while I wouldn't necessarily worry about this in a toddler, a five-year-old has both a fair capacity for impulse control and a moderately nuanced understanding of social appropriateness. I'm not a psychologist, but in your place I would be a bit concerned that (a) she's specifically trying to involve an authority figure in sexual stimulation behaviors when you've already clearly established that these behaviors are private, and (b) this behavior seems to only crop up with your husband (and you describe two incidents, but say there've been more). To not only make the connection between sexual stimulation and other people, but make it in the face of your parents' very different framing, does seem a little worrisome and suggestive of her having had other, outside models for the behavior.

The pediatrician will be a good guide, but I wonder if you could also hedge your bets by talking to her about body boundaries in a way that's not explicitly related to this particular behavior. At this point, you don't necessarily just want her to stop the behavior, you want to know more about how her motivations and perspective. Reading a book on the subject (I really like this one) and just having a couple nice open discussions might give you a better sense of whether she's coming from and whether any further investigation is warranted.
posted by Bardolph at 11:08 AM on July 17, 2013 [7 favorites]

As a mother of three little girls, I just want to add to the chorus saying this is totally normal (including the part about involving dad) and just warrants redirection. All three of my girls "grind", the younger two usually just in their sleep, the older one we redirect to do it in private.

From her point of view, it's an interesting sensation and she is likely trying to explore it, understand it, see if others feel it, etc. When driving up or down a hill, if my 6 year old's ears pop, she asks me if I can hear her -- she's obviously not sure how that sensation relates to her environment and whether or not there's an effect on those around her.
posted by ellenaim at 11:10 AM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think sensuality, feeling good, curiousity and growing awareness can certainly lead to all kinds of embarrassing kid/parent moments. When my oldest son, as a very young child, said he wanted to marry me when he grew up and I reminded him that I was already married to his Dad, well, it was a surreal moment for me. "Wow, so that Freud Oedipal complex thing really is a Thing that happens? Huh. Still off about the penis envy stuff, though..."

That being said, this targeted sexual behavior toward your husband would worry me, too, because of course on some level you are wondering where the hell is this coming from?! We all know that inappropriate sexuality in children can be an indication of abuse, and since you know your husband isn't abusing her, like you I would be asking myself why she chose him as a target.

Have you thought about asking her that? Not in a leading way that puts the idea of abuse in her head (and maybe gets all convoluted with her Dad and masturbating), but simply saying, "Honey, I was just curious. Remember the other day when we were doing suchandsuch? Why did you ask Daddy to touch your [blank]?"

Nothing more than that. If she seems embarrassed or doesn't want to say or whatever, reassure her she isn't in trouble or anything like that, and you were just curious, and then let it go.

It may be something as simple as, "Because it feels good when I touch my [blank] myself, and Daddy was right there, so I figured he could just do it." And then you will laugh.

Or it could be that she has an infection of some kind. If she has a UTI, that could explain why she is masturbating more in general. The irritation and urgency are forcing her hand.*

Or it could be something as innocent (but horribly embarrassing!) as her having caught a glimpse of the two of you having sexysex times when you thought she was asleep. And then you will probably freak out a little inside, but you'll handle it and it will all be fine in the end.

*So to speak. ;)
posted by misha at 11:53 AM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

As you and other commenters have mentioned, this could be related to sexual abuse. Or maybe not, there are other explanations. If I were you, I would want to be really sure that it's not a sign of sexual abuse, because if she is being abused and you figure that out and intervene now, she's much less likely to have the negative effects of long-term abuse. I'm going to try very hard not to be alarmist, but sexual abuse is much more common than most people realize. I know a number of families where the parents were absolutely sure that the kid couldn't possibly be sexually abused and in fact abuse was occurring by a relative, a trusted babysitter, or similar. When you say there isn't an opportunity for her to be sexually abused, what do you mean? Is she literally never alone with other kids or adults who are not you are your husband? If she spends any time at daycare, school, with a babysitter, or anywhere you are not there it is a possibility that she is experiencing abuse.

If my daughter were doing this, I would take her to a well-recommended therapist who specializes in evaluating/treating children who have experienced sexual abuse and discuss your concerns. Such a therapist will know age-appropriate ways to discuss this with your daughter and ask her what is going on. Someone who has a lot of experience with abused kids will better be able to tell you the likelihood that her behavior is related to abuse.
posted by medusa at 12:34 PM on July 17, 2013 [14 favorites]

> "Because it feels good when I touch my [blank] myself, and Daddy was right there, so I figured he could just do it."

This was pretty much exactly my thought process when as a kid I asked for parental assistance with the fun willy thing I'd discovered. In my mind at the time, it was the same as going "can you give my back a scratch?"
posted by lucidium at 3:31 PM on July 17, 2013 [6 favorites]

Kids don't really understand sex and sexuality - they just know what feels good or what feels bad. They don't know that they can't go around asking adult men to touch them, even though it feels good. They don't understand it's sexual and damaging. So that's where the boundaries come in - the challenge is to do it in a way that doesn't make the child feel as if they're 'bad'.

It is not necessarily indicative of someone doing it to her first, but the potential is there for her to ask other men or other boys or girls to touch her there and that's when it becomes a much bigger thing. Others have given some good advice on how to handle it.
posted by heyjude at 4:10 PM on July 17, 2013

I can't say this is or isn't normal for all kids, but I have four daughters and none of them ever engaged in this type of behavior. If they did, it would freak me out big time. If it were me, I'd call a doctor to be on the safe side.
posted by tacodave at 4:16 PM on July 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

As a practical suggestion: perhaps make the parental bedroom out of bounds, so there won't be a repeat of the surprise wakeup --- a verbal "no opening our door without permission" if you think that would be enough; and locking the door if necessary.
posted by easily confused at 5:03 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think this varies a lot but is natural for the kids for whom it's natural for. My mother was like this, I was like this, my daughter was like this. And we were all separated by adoption at birth (myself from my mother, my daughter from me) meaning there were two generations of rearing with adoptive parents from birth rather than shared environmental factors at work. So what I mean is, it's hard to describe if you're not into gene-environment studies, but these are likely behaviors that arise naturally in various kids in addition to environmental variables (such as abuse) being the cause of them for some kids.

I know a psychologist who worked in sexual abuse cases who claimed no child can be orgasmic at 5. I was absolutely having orgasms at five and don't even get me started on the awesomeness of pool jets. I've seen other kids go after the pool jets too, so I know I was not alone regardless of the level of "normalcy" is involved in being a horny kid. So I sort of question the judgement of people who just haven't worked with naturally horny kids and don't understand that we exist.

I think over pathologizing this can cause more damage than good. My parents told me my behavior might be because of an infection, I went to a lot of doctor appointments and let me tell you what, I think people underestimate the level of sexuality a child can experience being subjected to a lot of doctors poking and proding you in your genitals. The number of fantasies I developed about cold indifferent people forcing touching on me..

Then again I doubt I'm an example of normal, but I still don't think it's innately certain there was any abuse necessary for these behaviors to arise. I'm not sure that you're going to get a clear answer though from what you've said here. I loved playing genital themed games as a kid, as much as I cringe writing that and I know parents innately cringe thinking their kids could be that aware of their sensual parts, or even that that sort of play is even funner when it involves other people. Some kids just figure it out.

Considering that in a lot of species no one has to tell the animal how to do the sex or what it is, it should be unsuprising that there might be some people who even as kids innately have some sense that sexual interaction is a thing that people can do together, or might sense others sexual feelings more strongly. I know I could pick up vibes from creepy guys as a kid and I knew it was related to sex even though I didn't know what sex was.

I think parents and adults in general are creeped out by the idea kids could have some awareness of sexuality- and I think that's normal and healthy because there should be a "what ick ack!" factor around the idea of kids sexuality. Their sexuality is their business and adults don't really need to be all that involved other than to let them know it's normal, and some general guidelines about keeping to themselves. Honestly I don't think there's a way to make it not weird. If you get so open you're sitting around asking your kids how their orgasms are it just starts getting weird at a point. I think the aversion to total sexual openness in families is natural and healthy.

I also think it's hard to get research on child sexuality because it's really inappropriate to study child sexual behavior in the same way you can ask prying questions of adults, and adults often have no memory of the level of sexual things they did but were trained out of doing as kids. I had a lot of fantasies as a kid, mostly relating to machines-- like zomg the princess bride machine... whew, that thing but made out of pool jets? Then again, I'm ruined for men. I hear a lot of "kids don't understand sexuality" and I get that but I certainly had an idea that people wanted to do things related to sex and orgasms with my body-- so I'm not sure the idea that children have ZERO understanding of sexuality and only understand there is sensation is really that accurate.

Kids respond well to redirection and not having a huge emotional reaction about it because regardless of how statistically common it is, like I said, it's normal for the kids it's normal for. Obviously asking your doctor is fine but I can remember getting a lot of questions about why I was doing what I was doing and really seriously, having a bunch of professionals all up in your grill about why you touch yourself can be traumatic enough. The whole thing about it being innately creepy for a trusted adult to tell you they have a right to touch your genitals or ask you personal questions about it? From the kids point of view having a doctor and parents all sitting around talking about why you touch yourself and how concerning it is can be real weird. It can be really unpleasant for kids and is only worth making a deal of if you really think there are signs abuse might be involved.

My son doesn't really bother with it because he's always known he can go play with himself if he wants but he doesn't like being alone. He's asked if I'll sit with him in the bathroom while he plays with himself and I'm like, no dude. He's probably said plenty of stuff about how fun his penis is and I haven't found any of it noteworthy or disturbing other than to remind him what he wants to do with his member is his own business. I think people freak out about girls discovering themselves more than boys. Might have to do with the increased risk of abuse, getting taken advantage of, and the consequences for girls of early sexual awareness/activity being potentially disastrous.
posted by xarnop at 6:55 PM on July 17, 2013 [6 favorites]

I have another thought I haven't seen mentioned: is it possible she saw you and your husband having sex and is acting that out? Kids often act out things they don't understand. I think you should try to talk to her about it in a light way. Maybe your husband could also work on a few phrases to use... "Sweetie, that is not appropriate for Daddy. That's private." That sort of thing.

Good luck.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:03 PM on July 17, 2013

Reading the other comments, I remember that I had seen bits and bobs of R-rated graphic films in other people's homes at points around 5-6, and those were very curious things that resulted in my barbies in inappropriate positions, self-exploratory interactions, etc. Also found explicit pornography by accident - I don't think I could have conceptualized it as sexual activity, but it didn't fail to result in, um, stimulating, interesting imagery. So yes, data point here to say that adult behaviour in kids can happen without abuse being part of the scenario.

Also, I thought this was an on-point example from this pdf on dealing with child sexual behaviour challenges.

"Remember that children don’t think about sex in the same way adults do. When you find your child behaving sexually, do not assign your thoughts about sex to what you see your child doing. Ask your child what the behavior meant to them. A good example is an adult finding two young children laying on top of each other with their clothes on. To the adult, it looks like the kids are imitating intercourse. The children reveal that they are pretending to be married and they are copying a scene from a movie in which a married couple lay on top of each other in bed. While the adult knows that the movie scene was implicating intercourse, the children do not. They simply think that married couples lay on top of each other...."

There were some interactions within my circle of friends along these lines around 5-7 years old; rampant curiosity and repetition of things we had heard, plus vague awareness that this was-interesting-fun-and-we-probably-shouldn't-be-doing-this-ness. Probably was physically stimulating to a degree. I don't think we had crystallized the purpose of sexuality or its implications at that time... either way, became uninteresting after a while.

Total speculation, but perhaps her socially-unaware self is just conducting this exploration with you two, rather than friends, seeing as how you haven't reacted negatively in the past? Or that this is has been something modelled through images as something that occurs with a grownup man, and hey, "Dad's a grown up man! Exploration opportunity!"

I agree with PhoBWanKenobi's advice, given above; direct confrontation and then "moving on" is best (provided that you've ruled out the sexual assault aspect through questioning, obviously).
posted by NorthernAutumn at 10:54 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I second what xarnop said. I was very orgasmic at 5 and would rub myself so hard my mom would have to put diaper rash cream on my vulva. I did not relate it to sex because I had no idea about sex -- I never caught my parents doing it, didn't see a movie sex scene until I was 10, and unless I have completely blocked it out, never been molested.
I would do it while watching cartoons. I would especially get aroused when a cartoon overate or drank and would belch--(weird!!) I remember that Charlottes Web cartoon movie where the rat eats everything in sight--that was in the spank-bank for years!
That said I don't think I ever asked my dad to touch me there, although that could be because my mom DID shame me/told me stop when she caught me doing it it was an embarrassing secret to me. I honestly thought I was the only soul on earth who did it, and would vow to quit every Lent (yeah that didn't work).
I know you asked for parent input--sorry I'm not a parent. But as someone who wishes her parents were more open on the subject, I think you are doing great in redirecting her yet not shaming her. I would stress to her that EVERYBODY plays with themselves and its OK, its just not ok for adults to help, even daddy.
posted by hellameangirl at 10:07 AM on July 18, 2013

I was at my cousins' house warming party once and for some reason their three-year-old son decided he liked me. He showed me around the house and I thought he was being cute. Then, he walked me into his bedroom and asked if he could touch my "boobies." I said "no" and bolted out of there as quickly as possible. For the rest of the night, he kept asking me when I could come over to babysit for him and then cried when I left. It freaked me out. To my knowledge he was never molested/abused.

I use this as an example because it doesn't sound like your daughter's behavior is outside the range of normal. It's shocking, but I think some kids are just like this.
posted by parakeetdog at 6:03 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

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