Are these boyfriend's behaviors abusive?


Dear Stop It Now!,

My sister-in-law's new boyfriend has been tickling my 4 year old niece on her inner thighs and pulling her head towards his groin. Her face actually touches the front of his pants, and then he pulls her up so that her legs are around his head on his shoulders and her groin area is in his face. Is this considered abuse and what can I or my mother-in-law do when my sister-in-law does not care this is happening?

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Dear Concerned Aunt,

Yes, these are problem behaviors and steps do need to be taken. Any adult who plays with a child by touching the child’s private areas, or places any part of the child’s body on the adult’s private areas, is behaving in inappropriate and unsafe ways. 

However, based on just this information, it is difficult to say that this is abuse. If this is the extent of what has been observed at this point, there is not enough to file a report but that does not remove the risk of this man’s behaviors.  You can call your local Child Protection Services (CPS) and review your observations and concerns with them. They can let you know whether a report of suspected abuse can be made. To find you local CPS, go to the state child abuse reporting numbers from the Child Welfare Information Gateway.

Warning Signs
I would recommend that you read through the Warning Signs that might possibly indicate child sexual abuse in a child or an adult. In this section you’ll find a definition of child sexual abuse. I would also suggest that you look at all the lists of warning signs, especially Behaviors to Watch for When Adults Are With Children and Signs That an Adult May Be At-Risk to Harm a Child .

Grooming Behaviors
When someone has an intention of sexually offending a child, it is not uncommon for them to start by “desensitizing” a child to certain types of inappropriate touches. They may do this by getting a child accustomed to roughhousing or play that includes brushing or touching genitals.

It is also not uncommon for an adult who is at risk of abusing to push the envelope with such behaviors in front of the child’s parents or other adult caretakers. They are actually “testing the waters” to see if the parents or other adults will notice and put a stop to such behaviors.

When the adults do not put a stop to such behaviors, a person who is at risk of offending may begin to feel that they will be able to get away with abusing that child. When adults are not alert to behaviors like the ones that you describe, the child becomes more vulnerable to being abused.

Speaking Up
While it's not possible to know if this particular person has any intention of sexually abusing your niece, he is behaving in ways that are making the little girl much more vulnerable to being abused. For this reason, it is very important that the mother stops the boyfriend from behaving this way, and clarifies rules about safe touching for herself and all adults who interact with her child. 

Is there is anyone who can have a “heart to heart” with the little girl’s mother and try to explain the risks of the kinds of behaviors you’ve observed?  The conversation doesn’t have to be about accusing her boyfriend of the intention to abuse her daughter. Rather, the behaviors that have been observed can be shared with her, while explaining that behaviors that have questionable boundaries may give kids messages about who can touch their body and where that could be dangerous. Most importantly, the conversation should focus on everyone’s shared intention and desire to make sure that this little girl grows up safe.

If the mom can’t bring herself to speak up in the moment, I hope you and your mother in law will consider bringing it up – either in the moment or in private afterwards. In the moment, you can say (lightly) something like, “hey, let’s watch our boundaries, ok?”. 

Later, privately, you can also say to this man that you’re glad he enjoys playing with your niece, but that you’ve been watching his behaviors and also learning about safe touch with kids to help prevent them from being hurt. Let him know that his behaviors give the wrong message and may create a dangerous environment for her. And ask him to stop.

Safety Planning
Below are some links to tip sheets and information from our Online Help Center about what parents can and should do to help keep their children safe, how parents can create safe and healthy environments for kids, and how to set rules about body safety. Healthy sexuality education is also a part of safety planning. Perhaps you could share some of these resources with the mother, or if she has questions, you may want to encourage her to either email us or call our confidential, toll-free Helpline (1.888.PREVENT).

Some families have identified rules about “No Touch Zones” (usually where the bathing suit touches a child). The rule is that no one (adult or another child) may touch a child in their No Touch Zone (except under very specific circumstances that are made clear to the child – like when a doctor has a medical reason to touch a child’s private areas, or the child needs help from the parent with toileting or bathing).

When a family has rules like this, all adults are expected to follow them. No one is singled out. A child learns that there are boundaries around touching that need to be respected by everyone – adults and children alike. And anyone who might possibly be thinking of sexually harming a child will realize that the important adults in that child’s life are aware, alert and already taking preventive action to keep a child from being sexually abused.

I'm so glad you wrote in and that this little girl has a couple of adults paying attention. Your willingness to ask questions and speak up will help keep her safe. 

Take care,
Stop It Now!


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Last edited on: August 13th, 2018