My husband said sexually inappropriate things to my daughter.
Dear Stop It Now!,
My teen daughter has been acting up and having trouble in school, and she just told me her stepdad has made verbal sexual comments to her and she is not happy at home. I talked to my husband and he admitted to saying inappropriate comments to her but that he never intended to harm her and he wishes to work things out and get help. What do I do to help our family, and more specifically, what should I do for my daughter?
Dear Concerned Parent,
I'm so very sorry to hear that your daughter has experienced this. This must have been hard for her to hold, but it's fantastic that she was able to talk to you about what happened. And, it's great that you've already had a conversation with your husband and that he's been honest - and is willing to get help. Though this type of behavior is never okay from an adult to a child, especially one in a caregiving role, there are supports available for everyone in this situation.
Responding with Compassion
First, let's talk about your daughter. As I'm sure you have already, make sure you let her know how much you appreciate her sharing this, and that this is not her fault - no adult should ever make sexualized comments to her like this, period. Let her know that you believe her and you're taking this seriously - and that you want to make sure she feels safe and supported right now. And, if there is ever anything that she feels uncomfortable about, or if anyone crosses a boundary like this with her again, even if it's someone who she feels close with - urge her to speak up. You'll always be on her side; ask her who else she would feel comfortable talking to in moments where she needs help.
Finding a Therapist
It sounds like she has been really affected by what your husband has said to her as you had already noticed a significant change in her behavior - enough so that you needed to check in with her and ask her what was going on. Have you thought about finding a counselor for her? Therapy can be a place where she works to process how this inappropriate behavior affected her - her relationships, mental health, her self esteem, her feeling of safety, and anything else. Finding someone who is specialized to work with adolescents who have experienced trauma or child sexual abuse would be a good idea. You can reach out to her pediatrician, her guidance counselor, or look through someone through your health insurance company. Take the time to find someone who she will feel comfortable talking to - not only with the right qualifications, but someone who she can build a rapport with and talk about some things that may feel embarrassing or scary. Our resource guide for Children Who Experienced Sexual Harm or Abuse and on Finding and Choosing Professional Treatment and Support may also help you. Working closely with her therapist on what can help her feel safe in her home again may also be important.
Talking to Your Husband
Next, let's talk about your husband. It takes a lot of bravery to be honest, but what he did is serious and inappropriate. The way he talks to and treats his step-daughter is important, and serves as a model on how she will expect other adults to treat her too. It is important that he understands the impact of his behavior on your daughter - and what you'll be asking of him from here on out - to help clarify boundaries and expectations. This discussion doesn’t have to be accusatory or judgmental – but it would be important to clearly state the behaviors that have stuck out in your mind in the past (and do use our tip sheet on these Signs an Adult is At Risk to Harm a Child to help put into words anything else you may have noticed) and how it relates to youth by Increasing Their Vulnerability to an adult with harmful intentions. For more information on how to have this discussion, I’ve included our guidebook called Let’s Talk.
If you have noticed a pattern of other warning signs, you may want to ask that he specifically see someone who works to help those who are crossing boundaries in youth, like someone from the Association for the Treatment and Prevention of Sexual Abuse (ATSA)'s Referral Request page. These resources are meant to help folks who are concerned about how to practice safe boundaries with youth and those who are worried about their thoughts and behaviors towards children, make safe and healthy choices. I'm not saying your husband intended to hurt or abuse your daughter, but the boundaries he crossed are not to be taken lightly, and having a specialized professional can help support your whole family.
Similarly, since the family's dynamic has shifted, working with a counselor together as a family can be helpful. Everyone deserves to feel safe where they live, and after trust has been broken from a parent to a child it is still possible to restore a healthy dynamic with effort and support, so I hope you consider taking this step together as a unit. It's possible your daughter's or husband's therapist may have some recommendations for referrals on this type of fit to help restore communication, safety and wellbeing in a way that everyone feels seen, at home.
Safety and Boundaries in the Home
Another critical part of re-establishing safety would also be to clarify what rules everyone must follow - even things which may have been "unspoken" before. These help everyone understand what boundaries are appropriate - and what behavior won't be tolerated. This includes things like adults do not talk or joke with children about sexualized topics and adults who go into a youth's room with their permission must always keep the door open and always knock before entering (and wait for an appropriate response) on a closed bedroom/bathroom door and whatever else feels right to your family. These are rules that all people follow, and helps everyone feel respected and safe. You may find our pages on Safety Planning helpful as you consider this with your family in mind, and you might want to get your daughter's specific feedback on what would be helpful to her too.
Self-Care and Support
Also - I'm wondering how you're doing? I imagine this must have been a lot to take in, and it's okay to feel upset, blindsighted, angry, or confused - or even all these and more. There is no one right response to this, but by reaching out for support, you're showing your daughter that her safety is paramount. Do you have other people who you can talk to right now? What does your support system look like? As you move forward with your next steps, consider reaching out to a friend, relative, or even a therapist - as you may need to talk through confidentially how this disclosure has affected your relationship with your partner. A neutral space to talk may be invaluable right now - you don't need to handle this on your own. The resource above, ATSA, that gives out referrals for people who have crossed boundaries also works with spouses and family members, if you want to search for a therapist who would understand all the complex dynamics after an incident like this.
Stop It Now!
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Last edited on: January 4th, 2023