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Dear Dr. Debra,


Our neighbors adopted two children a couple years ago. They are brother and sister, the husband’s niece and nephew. The girl was molested when she was four or five years old. Now, she’s eight years old and still going to therapy. My wife agreed to watch the children before and after school. My two daughters are similar in age. I keep a low profile around the girl, with as little contact as possible. Although there are social situations, playtime, etc, in which we interact, I’m never alone with her. If I’m around, she’ll climb up into my lap. She will often come up when I’m not looking and give me a hug in a clinging, extended way that makes me uncomfortable. I’ve had to forcefully pull her arms off me and tell her enough is enough. I don’t feel good saying that to a child, but I certainly don’t want to encourage such actions. I’d like to stop feeling on pins and needles in my own home and still maintain an appropriate connection with the children.


A Concerned Father


Dear Concerned Father,


I think it’s good that you’re concerned about appropriate boundaries, yet still want to be affectionate with this child. She’s had a tough life so far, and she needs lots of love.


The behavior you’ve described is typical of sexually abused girls. It’s not uncommon for them to be abused again because of how they physically act out with men. However, the behavior could also be that of a needy little girl, who has had to transition from one family to another, and now must also spend a lot of time with a third family. Even without the sexual abuse, this child would have issues.


First of all, you and your wife need to speak with the girl’s parents about your concerns. Tell them I suggested they give the information to the therapist, so she knows what to work on with the girl.


Then, you need to find a balance between setting physical boundaries and still giving physical affection. It’s important for her to experience appropriate hugs with a safe man.


Here’s how to handle physical affection. Teach all the children (including your own) that you now are going to have counting hugs. When you embrace one of them, say out loud, “Hug, one, two, three.” For example: if all the children are leaving to go to the park, you give each a good-bye hug while counting out loud.


You also need to have a talk with your daughters in order to teach them appropriate boundaries. Tell them that cuddles between dads and daughters can be long or short, fun, or comforting. But hugs between other dads and them should not be longer than a count of three. That also means the hugs you give to their friends need to be a three count. And, to be fair, when the other children are at your house, you should keep all the hugs to a three count. Of course, if one of your daughters needs a longer embrace—she’s hurt or upset about something—you will provide that.


This should make the situation in your home more comfortable.


Dr. Debra


Debra Holland, Ph.D., is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in relationships and communication techniques.

Feel free to write Dr. Debra with your questions


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Dr. Debra Holland is also a regular contributor to the Wet Noodle Posse Blog.


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