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
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
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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