Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. We have a very stressful family situation going on. My son is aged just five and is being branded a pervert. Him and his cousin, a girl the same age as him, were found in her bedroom with their pants down. My sister-in-law went ballistic and she is refusing now to let him come near their house. She reported my son to the Gardai and we have had a call from a social worker who is due to come and visit. My brother is siding with his wife on the matter. We can’t talk to them. I thought it was normal enough to play doctors and nurses at their age?
David replies: The apparent sexual behaviour of children can be disruptive, distressing and even destructive for family harmony. Over the years, I have heard so many stories of families that have been torn apart by the behaviour of their child or another child, where it appears to be sexually motivated.
However, based on what you describe, I think your son is being unfairly demonised for what is normal behaviour for children aged five. He and his cousin seemed, from what you say, to be expressing a fairly typical curiosity about each other’s bodies, which is common amongst that age group.
Five-year-olds are quite likely to begin to wonder, ‘where do babies come from?’ Or if they already know they came from their mother’s tummy, may be keen to know how they got in there in the first place. Children their age may show interest in their own genitals or the genitals of other children of either sex.
We commonly allude to this interest by jokingly referring to the “you show my yours and I’ll show you mine…” phase that children can exhibit. Children of their age may hug and kiss each other and may play doctors and nurses, complete with full examination!
We need to understand that these kinds of behaviours do not carry the same adult sexual intent, or even awareness of sexuality, that make them sexual activities per se. They may involve the sexual body parts, but they are not sexual in their motivation.
So, it would be really helpful to know exactly what your son and niece were doing in the room with their pants down. If it is the case that they were just checking out each others’ bodies, even if that involved touching as well as looking, then I don’t think there is anything to be alarmed about.
If, however, they were simulating sex (oral sex or penetrative sex) then their behaviour is more worrying and does require a much more significant evaluation, to try to determine where either or both of them may have learned those kinds of behaviours.
I think you will find that the social workers will be much more concerned if the children were mimicking sex in any way.
Assuming that your son’s and his cousin’s behaviour was at the more typical, curiosity-based end of the spectrum, it does, nonetheless, warrant a conversation about bodies and about privacy. So, I think you’ll need to talk to him about his private parts, and girls’ private parts being off-limits for touching.
An easy way to help children his age understand which parts of the body are private is to refer to the parts that are usually covered by swimming togs. Do use the correct language and terminology, referring to his penis and his cousin’s vulva or vaginal area.
I think it is really important that your son knows that he is not a bad child for what he did. It is perfectly fine for him to learn that it isn’t OK to touch other people on their private parts, but do make sure you differentiate between him as a person and his behaviour.
It would also be really important to have a full and frank conversation with your brother and sister-in-law. Perhaps someone else in the family might broker a sit-down meeting where you could all discuss what actually went on, with a view to clarifying the full nature and extent of what the two were up to with their pants down.
Having social work involved may be a good thing, as it will, hopefully, shed light on the actuality of what happened and the shared (or otherwise) nature of their behaviour.
I think your son deserves an opportunity to avoid being pilloried and vilified for what seems to be normal five-year-old behaviour.
My daughter holds her poo, sometimes for days. How can we help her learn to go more regularly?
Q. My daughter is almost three-and-a-half and we have just started to potty-train her. She is holding her poo. She can literally do this for days until she eventually goes with extreme pain. This has been going on since she was 18 months old and was in nappies. We have been to the doctor a few times and she was prescribed a laxative to help things along. She still holds her poo until she lets go of a huge load of sludgy wetness, which ends up everywhere. We have praised her efforts every time, but how can we help her to go more regularly?
It sounds like your daughter has had some very negative experiences with her pooing. The extreme pain that she has felt either before or during a bowel motion must have been very negatively reinforcing for her, significantly reducing the likelihood that she would try again to do a poo since it felt so bad.
Even though the pain was probably the result of her holding on to her poo (maybe even creating an impacted mass), she has possibly misconstrued it, such that she believes that passing any kind of bowel motion will be painful, so its best to hold it back and restrict the number of motions she has.
If this is her belief, there is no easy way to dissuade her of it, since she is now caught in a bit of a catch-22 situation. If she goes more regularly she risks (in her mind) causing herself more pain. Yet it is only by going more regularly and having smaller and less dramatic bowel movements that she might get the experience of non-painful poos, or come to realise that it is “safe” to poo.
Even now, while her poos are sludgy and probably less painful, she may continue to hold on out of habit.
If we take it that her anxiety about a poo being painful is the main reason, however, for holding them back, then resolving that anxiety may be key to helping have the confidence to poo more freely and more regularly.
It could be useful to bring her to a play therapist to see if she might be able to help your daughter to process some of the bad feelings she might attach to pooing. Being able to play through these feelings might also help with any underlying fear about using the toilet, or more properly, doing a poo.
Beyond helping her with the emotional end of things, you can also set up a reward or reinforcement system that promotes the act of sitting on the loo or the potty. This means that you make a plan with her that she will sit, regularly, on the loo, even if she doesn’t feel she needs to go.
That said, if you plan with her to sit on the toilet or the potty about an hour after every meal, then it increases the likelihood that she might actually need to use it. Making sure her diet has plenty of water, fresh fruit, vegetables and fibre; this should also help her and mean that her stools form naturally and move through her system.
The reinforcement system is based on her receiving some kind of treat or reward every time she sits on the loo, irrespective of whether she uses it for a wee or poo. The treat doesn’t have to be big; it just has to be exciting and motivating for her. So loo-based story time might be the thing that does it for her or you may have to think creatively about what you know she likes or values.
Ideally any reward will be available to her either while she is sitting on the toilet, or immediately afterward, as these are the ways to create the strongest positive associations with sitting on the loo. Should she then use the loo she might get a bonus reward, although just your positive acknowledgment of a successful bowel motion, at that stage, might be enough for her.
Anything that will encourage her to use the toilet, that makes it a safe and non-threatening experience, will be helpful, so even making the bathroom a chill-out zone with music or aromatherapy oils might help.
Developing a new habit of going to the toilet and spending time sitting on it will hopefully be the precursor to using it to poo more regularly, further reinforcing a new understanding that pooing doesn’t have to be painful.