My daughter said she was forced into getting hickeys at a slumber party, should I be worried?
Dear Stop It Now!,
My daughter came home after a sleepover with several of her girl friends with three hickeys on her neck. She didn't bring the marks up and didn't seem overly concerned. Just the week prior she revealed that she felt she might be bisexual. When I confronted her about the hickeys, she said that they came from another girl and that she was forced into it. I asked her why she didn't tell the host? She said that she didn't know what to do, but why wouldn't she have tried to leave or call home after the 2nd and 3rd ones? I wasn't clear about how to handle it, but it appeared to be an elaborate lie. I did tell the parents of the girls to let them know that something had happened. I wasn't sure if she might have instigated the activity, or the others encouraged it. I asked her that if she was being attacked, why it was that no one helped her, especially her friends. She said that they told her to, "just get it over with". I want to make sure that I'm not overreacting, I didn't consider this threatening, but I'm concerned about the lying and covering up. I certainly want to keep communication open and involve the other parents. She also swears a lot and seems to be attracted to relationships that are more mature than her age.
Dear Concerned Parent,
It can be hard to imagine why a child wouldn’t reach out for help if they were being harmed. But just like with other kinds of bullying, children (even older children and teens) may not understand that the actions of their peers can be harmful. While they might be more able to recognize abuse by an adult (and even then, there are many reasons Why Children Don’t Tell), it can be much harder for a child to realize that this behavior from someone their own age – maybe even someone they consider a friend – is “not okay.”
Children's Sexual Behaviors
Because it can be easier to spot abuse caused by an adult than it is to recognize harm caused by a peer, children often may not be prepared to respond when another kid, especially a "friend", is being sexually harmful. Children’s behaviors are not the same as adults’ sexual behaviors, and children don’t think of one another’s behaviors the same as they would view an adult’s behaviors. (You can see our guidebook, Do Children Sexually Harm Other Children?, for more on youths’ sexual behaviors.) So, it’s possible your daughter really didn’t know what to do when she was being pressured or forced into this sexual behavior by a friend. Additionally, given her own questions about her sexuality, she may have been further confused about how to explore this safely.
It is not surprising or unusual that your daughter's friends did not respond with alarm or help her get to safety. They may have been just as confused and uncertain as she was by the actions. Children, especially adolescents, often look to their peers for a sense of what’s right and wrong. But when her friends told her to “just get it over with,” that may have sent the message to your daughter that what was happening was “normal”. This might have made it even harder for her to tell an adult; maybe she didn’t think she’d be believed, or that no one would think what happened was really a problem even though it was a violation of her boundaries and sexual safety.
When unsafe behavior is normalized it can create an environment where a child doesn’t feel able to take safety steps, even if they’re uncomfortable, scared, or hurt. As adults, we can help empower our children to speak up by being clear about Safety Planning, those rules for sexual safety that apply even to peers. Even if your daughter expressed curiosity about her sexuality, and even if she did initiate Age-Appropriate Sexual Behavior, a vital rule for safety is that everyone’s “no” must be respected. That means that no matter what was happening or who started the behavior, your daughter’s friend should have listened to her when she wanted to stop.
Responding to Unsafe Behavior
Sharing what happened may have been very difficult for your daughter. She may have been embarrassed, felt like this was her fault, or worry that she won’t be believed. It’s so important to remind your daughter that you are on her side, want to support her and believe her - that something that made her uncomfortable (at the very least) and possibly even harmful happened to her. And it's never someone's fault when they have been "forced" to do something they don't want to.You can revisit your family’s safety plan and remind her that what happened was against the rules, even if it was by a peer and not an adult. And you can let her know that even though she didn’t know to this time, the first thing she should do when anyone breaks those rules is to tell a trusted adult so they can help.
You took a great step validating your daughter’s feelings and preventing more harm by Talking To (the other girl's) Parents About Their Child's Sexual Behaviors. Forcing any kind of sexual contact on another child is a Sign A Child Is At-Risk to Harm Another Child, and knowing about this situation can give this girl’s parents an opportunity to address her behavior. This might mean going over their own family safety plan, limiting situations like sleepovers where their child might harm another peer, or getting their daughter professional support.
It does sound like you have some concerns overall about your daughter’s behaviors and possible decision making skills. You have concerns that make you worry she may be lying. We do know that children rarely lie about being abused or sexually harmed, but yes, if this was untrue, you’re right that lying about this kind of situation is very unsafe. It sounds like you’re wondering if this is tied to her questions about her questions about own sexuality and her overall behavior and well-being. Your concerns about her attraction for more mature relationships is also important to recognize as an opportunity to help her with decision making, safe relationship involvment and perhaps even self-esteem. You may want to consider professional support, such as counseling, which can help support her. Perhaps a confidential support will help her explore her questions about her self, as well as help her thinking about her own safety planning needs.
Certainly, continue to proactively work on your communication with her, creating an environment where your daughter feels safe talking and asking questions about sexuality. I understand how difficult or uncomfortable it may be to talk about sexual behaviors and experiences with a child of any age, but it is so important that your daughter feels able to talk to a trusted adult in their life about sexuality, especially if she has questions or concerns. You can let your daughter know that she can talk to you about these topics, and if she doesn’t feel comfortable doing so you can offer to find her another adult to speak to, like a relative or a doctor - or through the counseling recommendation made earlier.
Sexuality Education is an Important Part of a Safety Plan. Knowing she has someone to turn to with questions can help your daughter avoid unsafe activity or inaccurate sources of information, and knowing your daughter can come to you if something doesn’t feel right can give you peace of mind and help you keep her safe.
I’m glad that you’re keeping communication open with the other parents in this situation and reaching out for guidance on what to do next. It may help to share the information in this email with the other parents involved as you all work together to address what happened at this sleepover, how to respond, and how to keep everyone safe in the future.
Stop It Now!
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Last edited on: November 8th, 2018