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My daughter heard my ex-husband having sex with his girlfriend. Is this child abuse?

Question: 

Dear Stop It Now!,

My ex-husband took my daughters on a trip. My older daughter described sexual sounds from him and his girlfriend. My daughter begged me not to say anything to him, but I am extremely upset. Is this just inappropriate or is it abuse?

Response: 
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Dear Concerned Parent,

Thank you for contacting Stop It Now! We understand how important, and sometimes confusing, it can be to protect a child.

What is Sex Abuse?
What you’ve asked is an important question. Identifying whether adult’s behaviors are abusive is a key step in safety planning. Sexual abuse can indeed occur through both touching and non-touching behaviors and actions. Understanding the Definition Child Sexual Abuse is often a helpful way to clear up some common misinterpretations of what child abuse is and is not.

When a child witnesses or overhears a sexual encounter between adults, it could be accidentally or with intent. Accidentally, walls may be thin and a child may be able to hear something from another room, or perhaps they unintentionally walked into the bedroom during a sexual act. Sometimes two adults may even have sex in the same room as a child, like when the child is an infant.

Likewise, intending to expose a child to sexual activity is abusive. There is no reason that any adult should purposefully have sex, knowing that a child can hear and/or see what is going on.

Have you ever had any other concerns about your daughter’s father’s behaviors? Please look over our warning signs, noting that one of two signs doesn’t mean that her father is abusing her. Rather, look for patterns and repetitious behavior. Sometimes warning signs don’t mean that an adult is abusing a child, but instead that this adult has poor boundaries and can contribute to raising a child who may be more vulnerable.

The bottom line is that your ex-husband should be aware that his daughter heard him and was uncomfortable, and that this should not happen again.

Speaking Up
Talking to your ex-husband, despite your daughter not wanting you to, would be a good next step. It’s important that your daughter understands that secrets are not kept between adults and children. You may find other times she asks you “not to tell” and this could actually increase her vulnerability. You will of course respect her privacy but when safety is a concern, adults do need to make decisions about who to talk to.

When you speak to your daughter's father, let him know what your daughter told you and that it made her uncomfortable. Focus on your daughters' safety and well-being, and try to avoid an angry confrontation (even though, I understand that you probably are very angry that he put your daughter in this position). However, the goal is to see him first as a partner in keeping your daughters safe. Perhaps if he feels that you are not judging him, but rather are asking him to help you in creating the safest environment possible for your daughters, he will be more receptive to the conversation.

As I said before, accidents do happen and it is not uncommon for a child to hear or even see their parents having sex. However, it the parents’ responsibility to act responsibly and carefully. Perhaps, the two of you can talk about safety rules, such as not having intimate relations when children are in the same room, with hearing, or even awake.

As I’m not sure of the history between you and your ex, I do want to include that if you have any concerns that a conversation with him could pose a danger, then please seek out support to either join you in the conversation or perhaps to help you communicate your concerns in another way. If you do speak with your husband and he doesn’t seem receptive, just emphasize the need for safety and that it is not ok for him to ever expose your daughter to sexual material, language or behaviors. 

Certainly, if you do suspect that he purposely let your daughter hear what was going on between him and his girlfriend, this could be reportable to child protection services. It is important that the caregiving adults in a child’s life model appropriate boundaries, as their actions will influence how they make decisions in the future; loose boundaries make children more susceptible to abuse.

Safety Planning
Although it sounds like this may have been an awkward experience, this could be a great chance to talk about this real life situation to both of your daughters in an Age-Appropriate manner. Discussing healthy sexuality and development, as well as your values and rules about touching, privacy, and appropriate boundaries are the two keys to a family Safety Plan. Safety planning is not just reactionary rules after a crisis, but a great everyday prevention tool.

Safety planning keeps kids safe by reinforcing what is okay and what is not okay when it comes to boundaries and touch, and keeps the lines of communication open to further encourage children to seek a trusted adult if anyone – adult or child – has “broken a rule” with them.

Teaching your daughters the difference between secrets and surprises may be helpful as well. Surprises are something that you hold close to you only for a little while, but it is something that is okay to let everyone know about soon – they’re good things that you want to share with others. Secrets are something that someone asks you to keep when their worried that it may hurt someone, or themselves, and often makes a person feel weird or sad when they have a secret. Secrets shouldn’t be kept, and if anyone ever asks your daughters to keep a secret, or if anyone ever makes your daughters feel weird or scared, they should be able to come to you.

I’m hopeful that this is something that you would be able to do with your ex-husband as well. Please check out the following resources, as you may find them useful when safety planning with your daughters:

As you continue to parent, it’s always a good idea to keep an eye out for any behavioral changes in your daughters. If they seem to be struggling with personal boundaries, or are preoccupied with sex or sexual behaviors, I would encourage you to seek the help of a professional, or to bring them to the pediatrician.

Take care,

Stop It Now!

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Last edited on: August 10th, 2015