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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Inappropriate Child Behavior

Q. I have a 4-year-old son who goes to daycare. While giving him a bath, I noticed him pretending that his toy dinosaur was kissing his private parts. When I asked him about it, he was embarrassed at first but eventually told me that another little boy kissed his privates at school.

I told the daycare administrator and she told the child's mother. Since then, the boy has touched my son on the rear end and I reported the incident again. Weeks passed and I thought the issue was resolved. The administrator told me yesterday that my son was seen hugging another boy with both their pants down, and the same day he cornered a little boy in the restroom, pulled down his pants, and told the other little boy to kiss his privates.

I talked with my son about his behavior being inappropriate. If my son touches another child's private parts or ask them to kiss his private parts, should I punish him because I told him not to do this? What are the chances that my son could have been molested by an adult himself?

A. I'm sure this is a very unsettling situation for you and your family. I don't think it's wise for me to speculate on what might have happened to your son, in terms of explaining this unusual behavior. However, the behaviors themselves are certainly worrisome and, in my view, merit a professional psychological evaluation.

Of course, children do sometimes engage in normal play that may involve mutual touching of the genital regions. However--assuming the day care report is accurate--the aggressive quality of your son's action in cornering the other boy is troubling. It does raise the possibility that your son has experienced some type of inappropriate physical contact.

I believe the safest course is, first, to consult with your pediatrician; and second, to obtain an expert evaluation of your son's behavior. This must be done very carefully and tactfully, by someone with real expertise in forensic psychological examinations of children. If your pediatrician does not know someone in your area who fits this bill, you might try contacting Dr. Kay Rauth-Farley (M.D.), Director of Child Abuse Assessment Clinic, St. Joseph's Hospital, Phoenix, Arizona. She may know of appropriate contacts in your area. Or, try contacting the Department of Child Psychiatry at any academic medical center in your region, and ask to speak with someone who specializes in potential child trauma cases.

Regarding punishment: your son needs to know that there will be clear, firm, and appropriate consequences for any misbehavior of the type you describe. This should not involve hitting or in any way further traumatizing your child. Providing appropriate consequences may involve setting limits and removing privileges, such as watching TV, playing outside, etc. It should also involve a calm, patient, and firm explanation of why your son's privileges are being removed, including an explanation of why it is wrong to touch other children or make them do things they should not do, such as touching or kissing your son. But I would keep your focus on the underlying problem--and to understand this better, I believe a professional evaluation is the first step.

January 2003

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