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I'm worried about my boyfriend around my kids.

Question: 

Dear Stop It Now!,

I have two kids (12, 5 both males) and am recently divorced. I met a wonderful man on an internet dating site. He treats me and my kids so well. He confided in me very early on that he was molested as a child and that he then acted what happened to him out on his brother when they were kids.

He loves to spend time with kids, but not excessively. He seems like the “fun” adult to the kids and he’s very good with them (I have a lot of nieces and nephews) He’s mentioned several times that he never wants people to see him as someone who is weird with kids and it’s a fear of his. He is in therapy and has been for years.

I have not personally seen anything that raises major flags for me but I would never want to put my kids in danger and now that we are getting serious, I find that I’m uncertain if he is safe to leave my kids alone with. I don’t know what to do, there’s no way to bring this up without hurting him extremely badly.

Response: 
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Dear Protective Parent,

It’s very courageous of you to have done the often difficult thing of questioning a close adult’s behavior – as that is not easy – but it is a vital step to preventing abuse. You sound like a very caring parent, and I'm so glad you're reaching out to us with your questions. 

Children's Sexual Behaviors
Concerning your boyfriend’s sexual behavior as a youth, it can be helpful to debunk some myths associated with children’s sexual behaviors – including inappropriate, harmful, and even abusive ones – to help answer some of your questions. First, it’s important to understand that children’s sexual behaviors are very different than those of adults. Similarly, the reasons why a child may engage in inappropriate behavior can also be very different: sometimes a youth may act out harmful behaviors because they’ve been sexually abused, as you describe in your significant other, but there are many other factors that can play a role too. In fact, children often don’t understand their unsafe sexual behaviors can hurt or harm the other child. 

I'm not looking to excuse your boyfriend’s behavior; instead it's important to see his actions from the age and level of understanding by which he performed them and not from your own adult viewpoint or adult experiences. Sometimes after an experience of sexual abuse, a child may act in inappropriate ways with peers, friends or younger children, especially if their abusive history was not addressed through counseling. In fact, most children who engage in harmful sexual behaviors towards others, grow up into sexually safe adults. I’ve included some additional helpful resources below on this complicated topic.

Identifying Warning Signs
However, I don’t want you to ignore your concerns. Though you say you’re not noticing any type of red-flag behaviors in him, it’s always a good idea to know what type of actions can put a child’s safety at risk. Please take a look at these Signs An Adult Is At-Risk To Harm A Child and these Behaviors To Watch For When Adults Are With Children and see if you recognize any of these in the way your partner interacts with your children or other kids, and feel free to check-in with other close relatives and friends around this too.

Having a Conversation
I also want you to know that sometimes adults who are at-risk to harm a child may engage in inappropriate behaviors to slowly desensitize the child and the child’s caregivers to certain actions or touch, but sometimes well-meaning adults also engage in the same or similar behaviors because they are not aware how their actions may put a child at risk. Even if you’re noticing a minor boundary-crossing behavior, it would be important to speak up as this can Make Children Vulnerable. It’s important that both your kids are always treated as autonomous beings who need to be provided with all the respect and care (and then some) of adults. 

If you did see any warning signs in your partner, our guidebook, Let’s Talk, has some tools on how to have a conversation without using accusatory or judgmental words, but instead coming from a place of caring and concern. Though this conversation can be difficult, it doesn’t have to feel like you’re saying that he’s a risk to kids; there are many reasons why adults do things that are unsafe, and that’s why we don’t assume intentions but instead speak about the behaviors we’re noticing. It’s also possible that if you do want to address something that may potentially be triggering with him, you can see if you can talk to him while his counselor is there so they can help you both process what’s going on in a neutral and safe environment.

Planning for Safety
Even if you review the above tip sheets on identifying warning signs and you don’t see any anything that you want to address, now is still a great time to review what safety planning rules you want in your family – which includes what you expect your boyfriend to model, too. Safety Planning articulates the guidelines about body boundaries, privacy, respect, and consent to your children, and asks caregivers to respect these healthy boundaries too. This is a great way to get everyone on the same page about body safety, and is often useful because it doesn’t single any one person out. Your children will grow up knowing what’s okay and be better equipped to recognize what’s not okay no matter where they are or who they’re with – and this encourages them to speak up to you (or another trusted adult) if anyone ever did break a rule with them. 

Some families have rules like: Adults and children have the doors open and keep their clothes on when playing. The places we cover with a bathing suit are private, and we always keep our hands to ourselves. 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 someone is asking about your private parts, talking to you about theirs, or if anyone ever makes you feel uncomfortable, it is important to talk to a trusted adult. Surprises are okay because it’s a happy thing we tell someone about later, but we don’t keep secrets. Adults always ask children if they would like a hug, kiss, or high-five and they respect their answer. And whatever else you may want to tailor to your needs. It’s possible you’re doing this already, but I’ve included some additional useful resources below if you’re interested.

It’s also okay that right now you may not feel comfortable leaving your kids alone with him. It’s important that you feel okay honoring that choice, and that he respects your decision. Getting to know someone takes a long time, and letting someone be alone with your kids is also a big step. You should feel empowered setting limits, and taking things with this person at the pace you see fit. 

Take care,
Stop It Now!

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Last edited on: April 12th, 2019