I’ll bet you’re swamped with questions for your column, but if you need another one, I’d love your advice on a tricky issue. Please don’t publish my real name though, I don’t want family to find this (for reasons which should become obvious). I need to be anonymous.
I married into a small family, my husband is an only child, and has two first cousins. There are also my husband’s parents, one uncle, and us. We always, without fail, have to spend Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, etc with his family for the day. There is no getting around this. My issue is that I don’t like the way one cousin (let’s call him Creepy Carl) treats my child (let’s call her Gracie).
Creepy Carl is 45. He lives with his father, works at low-end job, and spends his spare time online or watching horror movies. The rest of the family treats him with affectionate tolerance, like he’s just a big teenager, despite his advanced age. They think it’s so cute that he likes to play with the kids, especially my daughter. I don’t think it’s cute at all, I think it’s creepy. He brings her candies and presents, and if she won’t kiss him and say thank-you, threatens to take the presents back. At Christmas, when we arrived and were kissing everyone hello, he kissed Gracie on the mouth. On. The. Mouth. My 3 year old! His sister told him that was inappropriate, but it was treated as kind of a joke, like he didn’t know better. He won’t leave her alone for 5 minutes, but is always picking her up, asking her to sit on his knee, tickling her, carrying her around, poking her, teasing her and just generally horsing around. The last time we were together I could hear him inviting her to tickle him, saying “Now it’s your turn to tickle me!” My husband was in the room with them, but HELLO!! No 45 year old man should be asking my 3 year old to tickle him. This is not normal behavior. He also takes pictures of her on his little digital camera all the time.
The problem is that my husband thinks I’m overreacting. I mean, nobody wants to think their cousin is the creepy child molester, but his behavior is very weird. More often than not child abuse is done by someone the child knows, not that random stranger behind the mall. If this was someone at church or a neighbor, my husband would be much more concerned, I’m sure. But he just keeps insisting that Creepy Carl “means well” and just doesn’t know how to play with kids because he’s never been around small children before my daughter was born. He agrees that Creepy Carl shouldn’t be tickling Gracie, but he won’t step in or say anything, because he doesn’t want to cause trouble or imply that something wrong is going on. I just don’t know what to do. I don’t want to cause a family feud either, but I can’t just look the other way and hope for the best.
I try to always stay in the same room as my daughter, but I have a newborn and sometimes have to go into another room to feed or change her. It is also difficult because Gracie is the most outgoing kid ever, and likes Creepy Carl because he brings her treats and plays these silly chasing/tickling games with her. And being such a small family, there is no one else for her to play with on these occasions. I have asked my husband to watch her while I feed the baby, but he just doesn’t have that mother’s knack of tracking a toddler. If he gets talking, he has no idea where she is or what she’s doing, and as he isn’t concerned about Creepy Carl, he “forgets” to track her.
Case in point, the last time we were together, I went to a bedroom to feed the baby, and I heard Gracie and my mother-in-law going into the next bedroom. Next thing I know, I hear Creepy Carl in there too, and then my mother-in-law left the room. I quickly stopped nursing, went in, and Gracie was jumping on the bed, and Creepy Carl was taking pictures of her. Not a criminal offense, my husband says, and he’s right.
Then I feel like I’m totally overreacting and looking for trouble. I’m just nervous about the whole situation, I don’t want Carl and Gracie hanging out on a bed together, you know?
Sorry this is so rambly: I guess my real question is, how do I make my husband see my concern is valid without outright accusing his cousin of ulterior motives? I need my husband to be “on my team” when Creepy Carl is around, and even better, I’d like my husband to speak up and say “no tickling, no kissing”. Has anyone been in a similar situation, with relatives you don’t feel comfortable around? How did you set limits and protect your children without making accusations or even implications of child abuse? Maybe Creepy Carl does mean well, but his behavior is inappropriate, and I don’t want Gracie thinking she has to kiss or tickle ANYONE that tells her to, even if they’re family.
I hope you or your readers will have some insights for me, I feel like I’m between the proverbial rock and the hard place.
Thank you so much, Amy.
A Concerned Mom
DING DING DING DING DING.
That’s the sound of alarm bells, going off in my head, in perfect harmony with your own alarm bells of mother’s intuition. Which should never, ever be ignored. Especially in this case.
Your husband’s family keep returning the the excuse that Carl “means well” and “doesn’t know what he’s doing.” I am going to say the straight-up opposite: I think he knows EXACTLY what he’s doing.
Since I personally had SUCH a strong reaction to Carl’s behavior, I consulted a friend of mine for a second opinion. Jodi is an attorney who works in child abuse and I asked her if she saw as many red flags as I did.
I’m a big believer in Mom intuition, and if you have a voice in your head that is going off and says danger alert!!!! then I think you need to listen to it. The truth is that abusers do groom their victims and their parents by some of the behaviors you have discussed, the candy giving, the kissing, the tickling, or, it all could be innocent and he could just be overly affectionate. This is a good article on grooming. But, if it makes you, or YOUR DAUGHTER uncomfortable, it needs to stop. This article includes warning signs of sexual abuse and some of the behavior you have discussed is listed. I hope this reinforces that you are not crazy for warning bells to be going off.
Have you tried to talk to your husband rationally? Not when you’re upset or when something has just happened, but before a visit and when everyone is calm? Just tried to say: I’ve noticed this behavior and it makes me very uncomfortable. Ask your husband how he would feel if something did happen to Gracie? Child sexual abuse devastates a family and repercussions lasts for years. Sparing a relative’s feelings is nothing compared to your daughter’s safety and welfare. And you were right when you said that most children are abused by someone they know. Once again I am not saying he is an abuser but obviously you are very concerned about this behavior.
If for some reason you suspect, or begin to suspect, that something has already occurred, please do not hesitate to reach out to your local police and child welfare, call the ChildHelp USA National Child Abuse Hotline, 1-800-422-4453. It may not be a bad idea just to call the hotline to get their opinion on the behavior you are concerned about. All calls are anonymous.
(Disclaimer: this is not legal advice)
Just to repeat: MANY of the behaviors you mentioned are specifically, explicitly mentioned as classic “grooming” behaviors. You are not imagining things. The gifts, the candy, the eschewing adult company and paying attention exclusively to the child. Nonsexual touching. The threats of consequences when Gracie tries to refuse or avoid physical contact (“I’ll take your present away unless you play our tickle game!”). The slow testing of the waters (sitting on laps, kissing on the mouth, following her into bedrooms) to see what Gracie (AND YOU) will tolerate.
OF COURSE it’s possible that Carl is just a clueless, well-meaning guy who simply relates to children better than adults. Maybe he’s a lonely man who always wanted children and his little cousins are filling an innocent emotional void. But dude: I’m really not 100% sure about that, and you aren’t either, so you absolutely must proceed accordingly. Like Jodi said, sparing family feelings and the keeping the status quo are soooo less important than your daughter’s safety.
Call that hotline. Send your husband the articles. Talk to him when you can be as calm as possible and lay out the rules that you want — nay, DEMAND — to be enforced around Carl, including CONSTANT PARENTAL SUPERVISION.
And talk to your daughter. Predators count on children to be innocent and naive on the whole good touch/bad touch/abuse touch thing. They count on us as parents to put off any conversation about sex for as long as possible. And it’s probably true — I’ve had more talks with my son about strangers and fewer about the swimsuit parts and who is allowed to see or touch them. We like to think that we know and trust everyone in our young children’s lives and that our protection is enough. But as you saw with the bed-jumping/photo-taking incident, it’s frighteningly easy for someone we don’t 100% trust to slip through our defenses and gain access.
ChildHelp has an entire website dedicated to talking to children abuse and molestation. You probably sat through some of this curriculum back in elementary school. Talk to Gracie about what’s okay and what’s not using these guidelines. Even if Carl is perfectly innocent and nothing ever happens (and of course that’s our most fervent hope), knowing your daughter has the power of discernment and saying NO! and the words to TELL YOU might make future family visits a little less unnerving and…uh…creepy.