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I'm worried about my boyfriend's behavior with my daughter.

Question: 

Dear Stop It Now!,

My boyfriend and I have been together on and off for almost 8 years. I am pregnant with our 2nd child and I have 3 children from a previous relationship. My oldest daughter just turned 15. She has always been a handful, but now that she is more mature, her behavior and attitude towards me is pretty bad and she acts like she hates me and is upset with me for something but won’t talk about it. It has changed, but previously both her and my boyfriend hated each other. For the most part when he would come to visit (we have never lived together), he would completely ignore her presence and acted like she didn't exist. When I asked him why, he said it was because he wanted to avoid any arguing with her as she was very disrespectful and is easily angered. Now things are different. She and him play around and joke a lot together.

Their jokes are often at my expense and sometimes I feel attacked by them. For example, she'll imply that I'm fat and he'll imply that I'm ugly or something like that. One time he was leaving to pick up some fast food and she wanted to go with him. I didn't think anything of it and said yes. They were gone for over an hour and when I called him several times he did not answer his phone and the restaurant is 2 miles from my house. He defended it and said that it took really long to get the food but I do not believe it. 

Shortly after this incident, I walked into her room and caught her masturbating, although she denied it. Another day, early in the morning I got out of the shower because I forgot something and when I came into my bedroom, he was not there. I looked around the house, including in my daughter’s room, and didn't see him anywhere. But when I asked him where he was, his answer didn’t make sense - he said he was in the bedroom the whole time and I thought this was a red flag. 

Also, he has talked about how he wanted to be with a "young girl" and that I was too old. I was 30 at the time and he was 28. He spoke about how young girls are easier to control and that "they will do anything." This was concerning and I confronted him about it. I asked him if he was a pedophile and he denied it.

If it came down to it, he will never admit anything to me. He doesn't tell me anything and I feel there's so much to him that I don't know. I have confronted him and he denies ever doing anything to her. I asked her as well and she gets annoyed (typical teenager) and doesn't say much. She just says that nothing ever happened.

Response: 
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Dear Concerned Parent,

I’m sorry to hear that you’re having concerns about the sexual safety of your eldest daughter around your boyfriend. Questioning a close adult’s behaviors is not easy, but is a vital step to preventing abuse. I'm so glad you've reached out to us for more information and guidance. 

Recognizing Warning Signs
When you see something that makes you have that “gut feeling,” it’s so important that you dig a little deeper and not ignore what you’re noticing, as you're doing. Though sometimes it can be difficult to tell whether what you’re seeing is a Warning Signs in Children of Possible Sexual Abuse with older teenagers, check-in with other places where she spends time – like school, other relatives, and with the parents of her close friends. And although masturbation is normal and healthy at this age, it sounds like you have many other reasons that make you wonder what is going on with her.

Your concerns about your boyfriend's behaviors and comments are valid, and you’ll want to take a look at these Behaviors To Watch For When Adults Are With Children and these Signs An Adult Is At-Risk To Harm A Child. And think, do you have other folks that share in your concerns like a friend or relative? You may want to share these tip sheets even. Looking over these warning signs sometimes helps a person put a finger on something they felt before but couldn’t put into words.

Identifying Harmful Patterns
I also want to point out the unsafe dynamic you describe – when someone belittles you or calls you names to degrade you or lower your self-esteem – is emotional abuse. That is very worrisome that your boyfriend is now encouraging this same type of behavior in your daughter too. And, it sounds like the way he responded to you (by saying he was in the room the whole time when you couldn't find him) was gaslighting. Though you don’t describe physical violence, emotional abuse is still domestic violence, and you may still want to reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1.800.799.7233) to talk more about the life you share with your partner.

Having a Conversation
It sounds like you’ve had a conversation with your boyfriend, and it’s possible you may want to do so again – but I want to stress –only if it feels safe to have this talk and if there is someone else close to him or the both of you, maybe include that person as well. What you say doesn’t have to be accusatory or judgmental (or even confrontational), but it would be helpful to clearly state what behaviors you are seeing that are concerning and wait for him to respond; then draw the line on appropriate behavior. Children take cues from the important adults in their lives, and the way he talks to and behaves with your children will teach them what to expect from others and how they should be treated. And of course his comments about young girls is very worrisome. If talking to him further seems like a safe option, please check out our guidebook Let’s Talk. But again, safety must be your priority.

We also just did a webinar recently on a very similar topic called Dear Stop It Now! Helpline, I’m afraid my brother is grooming a child, and it may be helpful to you (and your allies) as you work towards next steps. This webinar dives deeper into having conversations with an adult with risky or abusive behaviors, and models a role play with two different outcomes. You can find a copy of the recording, role plays and handouts on the above link.

Safety Planning
Now would also be a great time to review your family safety plan, and perhaps get other caregiving adults involved with this too. Safety Planning articulates the guidelines about body boundaries, privacy, respect, and consent to your children, and asks other caregivers to model and respect these healthy boundaries too. This helps youth know what’s okay and helps them better recognize when something is not okay no matter where they are or who they are with. Having these guidelines in place can make it easier to discuss any unsafe behavior in the future by addressing the rule that has been broken, rather than by singling anyone out – these are rules that every adult and child must follow. 

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. Unless you need help in the bathroom from your parents, or if you are at the doctor’s office getting a physical exam, no one should touch or see your genitals but you. 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. Adults and children always ask before giving a hug or kiss on the cheek first, and then they respect the other person’s answer. Adults always respect a child’s “no”, and listen to other cues that may alert them that a child may not want to be touched (except in regards to medical or immediate safety concerns). Surprises are okay, but we don’t keep secrets. Only one person behind a closed bedroom/bathroom door, and we always knock before entering. Adults always keep children in a common area with other adults, and do not bring them to a secluded place. And whatever else you may find to be appropriate. Though these may seem basic for your older daughter, please tailor these to your family’s needs. 

Again, I want to urge you to trust your gut here. It’s saying that something is off, and you are not feeling like you can trust your partner. If it doesn’t feel like he’s a safe person to bring around your children right now, then you have every right to limit his access to your kids, especially if you two live apart.

Counseling
Another idea I want to mention is the option of getting your daughter involved with a therapist that she trusts – someone she can slowly build a relationship with and open up to as she’s ready. It sounds like, even without knowing whether he has sexually abused her, there is something she’s trying to express through her behaviors – something, clearly, is bothering her or stressing her out; she deserves an outlet for that. I’d encourage you to search for the therapist that is right for your daughter, as the right person (qualifications, personality, style) is key: this may mean talking to several to people on the phone, asking about their experience in the field and goals of treatment and see if they align with what you’re looking for. The second or third person you meet may be the person that your daughter might really connect with. Our resource guide on Finding Professional Treatment and Support, her health insurance company and guidance counselor may all be places to turn to find a good referral – and while the times are changing, you may want to think about whether tele-visits may work right now too. 

Self-Care
And I also want to ask – how have you been doing? Do you have allies in this situation, and other people to lean on? This is really difficult, and you also deserve somewhere to process how you’re feeling. This is certainly a topic that you deserve somewhere to explore more deeply, to ensure that you’re able to take the best next steps for yourself and your family. Reach out to people in your life – friends, relatives, members of your faith community or seek out your own professional therapist. You should have somewhere to talk about how your boyfriend has been treating you, and all you’ve been seeing in your daughter – so that you can continue to make the best choices for yourself and your family. 

Take care,
Stop It Now!

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Last edited on: April 10th, 2020