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What to do about my parents' inappropriate behavior with my daughter?

Question: 

Dear Stop It Now!,

My parents have inappropriate behavior towards my 1 year-old daughter, but when I ask them about it they say it's okay and normal. When my mother is watching my daughter she allows my daughter to put her hand in my mother's shirt, and she lays my daughter down to sleep on her breast. I think it's disgusting and always tell her to stop, but when I'm not around I think she continues anyway. My dad forces my daughter to straddle him and kiss him and he licks her ears with his tongue. I feel extremely uncomfortable and I don't know what to do. I need help.

Response: 
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Dear Concerned Parent,

I’m sorry you’re in such an uncomfortable position. I imagine it’s frustrating to set boundaries, only to have them be ignored.

You Make the Rules
While your parents may consider their behavior “okay and normal,” you as your daughter’s parent get to set the rules about how your child is treated. I can understand how this might be difficult when your parents are the ones breaking the rules. However, you are not alone – you might want to read our advice column, How do I get my elderly aunt to stop kissing my children? about a similar situation.

Safety Planning
I would suggest creating a very concrete family safety plan, a set of rules about behaviors that are acceptable and unacceptable both for your daughter and for all the adults around her, including yourself and your parents. If it’s clear that these rules are for everyone, it may feel easier to enforce them. When sharing this safety plan with your parents, you might also want to share our tip sheet, Don’t Wait: Everyday Actions to Keep Kids Safe. This might help them think more preventatively.

Talking About It
You can also explain to your parents more directly how their behavior may be making your daughter more vulnerable to abuse. So even if you know that they would never hurt her, you want her to learn about safe boundaries, and concepts like privacy and consent as early as posible. Your daughter is learning from your parents how to interact with other adults. If your mother lets your daughter put her hand in your mother’s shirt, your daughter may not understand that this is not appropriate behavior in all other siutaitons, either as the initiator or the person on the receiving end of the behavior. Additionally, your mother not respecting and adhering to your limits risks demonstrating to your daughter that she doesn't have to listen to you as a parent.

The Importance of Boundaries
I’m especially concerned about your father’s forcing your daughter to straddle and kiss him, and licking her ears. This sends your daughter two messages: that it’s alright for an adult to touch her this way, and that an adult can force her to do something with her body that she may not want to. It’s important for your daughter to know that her boundaries will be respected, and that no one is allowed to do something that makes her uncomfortable.

If your parents continue to ignore the rules and your daughter’s boundaries, consider limiting contact with them until they can follow your family’s rules. I realize that it can be very difficult to set boundaries with one's own parents, and I hope that you have support to help you take the protective action steps that you set out for yourself. If you are parenting with another person, I hope this person can also help you determine the guidelines and rules you want for your daughter's safety and healthy development, as well as envorce them. 

Other Warning Signs
Because your parents do seem to have some challenges around limits and physical space, I would also keep an eye out for any other Behaviors to Watch for When Adults Are With Children. Our guidebook, Let’s Talk, can help you address these behaviors with your parents if they continue to be concerning. While not completely compatible with your situation, this booklet shares some strategies for raising difficult concerns with people we care about. 

Please know that when you’re feeling uncomfortable, it’s important to listen to your gut. You’re trying to create the safest environment possible for your daughter. Your daughter is lucky to have a parent paying attention to her boundaries and the early relationships adults are having with her. 

Take care,
Stop It Now!

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Last edited on: November 15th, 2018