Monday 24 October 2016

The Parent Zone: 'Our children are five and six - is this experimentation too sexual in nature?'

Playing doctors and nurses is innocent exploration. Picture posed
Playing doctors and nurses is innocent exploration. Picture posed

Children involved in inappropriate play and a child who is finding school difficult

My partner and I have a six-year-old girl who occasionally requests her younger brother (5) to stick his fingers up her "bum".

He said it was wet and slimy. We can only assume he was talking about her vagina. Is this child experimentation or something else we should be concerned about?

This is an alarming scenario. This sort of bodily exploration is not within age and developmentally-appropriate expectations for a six-year-old. It is reason for real concern and a thoughtful course of action.

Interestingly, there is little research about the age-appropriate bodily exploration of children. We simply do not know what represents 'innocent' curiosity such as playing doctor and nurse as opposed to more suspicious activity described above.

Despite the lack of hard research in this area, I am quite concerned about what you describe. To be perfectly frank, I do not think it is 'normal' six-year-old child exploration.

It is important when questioning children about these matters that you do not raise their anxiety or cause them to be fearful. Your use of language needs to be delicate and judicious.

First of all, there is little to be gained by talking to your daughter about this when you are upset and fearful yourself.

Children pick up on adult stress and fear immediately, and it causes them to become stressed and fearful in return.

A gentle approach is important. Once you have regained your composure (if you can) you can ask your child where she learned to play that game.

Sometimes the use of non-judgemental phraseology will get you closer to the answer than you think. Do not ask 'who' taught the game. That is a question that comes later in your discussion.

Depending on the answer you get, and remember that children are highly likely to give honest answers when they feel they are having a conversation as opposed to an interrogation, you can proceed to ask other questions.

The questions you ask will be guided by the response you have received. If the child says, for example, "I learned it at Peter's house," you ask who was there when you were playing the game. Other questions will follow.

Once you have received the information you sought you will proceed carefully. The most important thing is not to ask too many questions and confuse your daughter. I can't go into detail about what course of action you might take but I'm sure you will use good judgement. Your question reveals something else that is important about children's bodies. Children need to know the correct vocabulary for their body parts.

Your daughter has used the word 'bum' and you are left guessing if it was her vagina or her rectum.

You might, in this case, ask if it was her 'front bum' or her 'back bum'. However, if she had the correct vocabulary you would be less confused.

I encourage you to talk to your daughter soon and try to come to some conclusion about what happened. If you suspect she has been interfered with, it is important to talk to your GP who will guide you through proper procedures and also perform the necessary physical examination.

I am the proud father of a 5-year-old boy who started school last September, and up until April of this year was loving it and doing really well.

In April his teacher was changed due to the junior infants teacher returning from maternity leave and this is where the issues started.

Since she came back he is now afraid to go to school, clinging to my leg when I drop him off, he said that the teacher shouts at him, and is mean to him but nice to some of the other children.

We have been told that there were a number of complaints about this teacher last year to the principal but nothing was done, so I guess what I am asking is, do we have any other options or is the best thing to remove our child from the school?

Any time a child changes their attitude about school, from being happy and joyful to being fearful, stressed and clinging, it is reason for concern.

Don't jump to conclusions. It's important to take things one step at a time.

First of all, talk to your son when you are calm. Ask him to tell you exactly what teacher is doing that he thinks is 'mean'.

It is always best to try to get to the facts before coming to any conclusions. You also need to talk to the teacher.

You need to be respectful of course. Ask for an appointment, do not show up at school and expect the teacher to drop everything and talk to you. Act promptly; as soon as you hear a complaint like this from your child, it is time to act on it.

Tell the teacher exactly what your child has said and tell her exactly how he is acting.

Explain that this is a change in his behaviour. Express your concern politely and calmly. Ask the teacher if she thinks anything has occurred in class to upset your son.

Ask her if he is getting on well with the other children and if his play pattern has changed in any way.

You are looking for information, not carrying out an interrogation.

If you resolve the situation with the teacher and your son returns to the happy little boy he was, then the problem is solved.

If things do not change, you need to investigate further. You will have to make contact with the school principal and talk to him or her.

Take things one step at a time, don't get aggressive but be sure to make it clear you expect everything possible to be done to assure your son finds school an enjoyable experience.


David is a psychologist; send your questions to davidcarey@herald.ie

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