Lisa Wilkins / MSNBC.com
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/6/2004 8:14:12 PM ET 2004-08-07T00:14:12

What's a parent to do when sexual curiosity goes too far during play dates? And how can adults help kids stay off of pot? Columnist Victoria Clayton answers your queries. Have a question about children's health and well-being? Send it to us at childrenshealth@feedback.msnbc.com. We’ll post select answers in future columns.

Q:My 5-year-old daughter has a long-time friend who has become inappropriately physical during play dates. He recently grabbed and squeezed my daughter’s vagina. He has also continued to pat my daughter’s bottom after being asked to stop. The play dates have been cut off but otherwise how do I help my daughter come to terms with this experience?

A: It’s common for children up to about age 6 to "play doctor." They may be interested in each other’s anatomy and display socially unacceptable behavior like stripping off their clothes in public or engaging in I'll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours activities.

Of course, it isn’t OK for kids to be sexually aggressive with their playmates. But instead of cutting off contact with the other child, which your daughter might misperceive as punishment for having told you what he did, you may want to first take a milder approach, advises Dr. Andrea Van Deven, director of the Child Protection Team at Children’s Hospital Boston.

For starters, make sure all play dates are highly supervised. Naturally, talk with your daughter so she understands the touching wasn’t appropriate and that if this friend or anyone else touches her in a way that she doesn’t approve of she has a right to tell the person to stop and she should also inform you. If you think your daughter may need more help, however, speak with your pediatrician, who can either offer counsel or refer you to someone who can.

Usually, though, as long as the incident hasn’t gone beyond what you’ve noted and you’re supportive but don’t overreact, your daughter will be fine.

However, the little boy may be of more concern. His parents must be made aware of the incident. His behavior may amount to nothing but it also could be the first tip-off that he needs help. “In these instances I’m really more concerned about the behavior of the other child — the ‘aggressor’ for lack of a better word,” says Van Deven. “I’d want to know if the behavior is coming from somewhere. Is this something that someone has done to him?”

As appalling as it may sound, children could be seeing or experiencing inappropriate sexual behavior even at supposedly safe havens such as school. And if this is happening his parents certainly need to know.

Charol Shakeshaft, a professor in the school of education at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., recently conducted a study for the U.S. Department of Education that concluded that almost 10 percent of school-age children have been victims of sexual misconduct ranging from inappropriate talk or touch to criminal behavior by employees at their schools.

“Child empowerment is important — using specific language to teach your child that if someone touches them in certain places they should report them,” says Shakeshaft. “But, undoubtedly, the best way to decrease the number of children who are victims of sexual misconduct isn’t for children to take on more responsibility. It’s for adults to be more aware and more vigilant.”

By keeping an eye on your daughter’s friend and urging his parents to look for causes of his behavior, you’re not only protecting your own child but you could potentially be sparing him and other children further victimization.

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SMOKE SIGNALS
Q:
I’m trying to get my son, 17, to stop smoking weed. I have grounded him, and have done everything else I can think of, from banning him from certain friends to taking him to counseling. But he once again has been caught. What can I do?

A: Don’t throw up your hands just yet. First, double-check to make sure you’ve really tried everything, says Dr. John R. Knight, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and director of the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research at Children’s Hospital Boston.

“I’m continually surprised at the number of parents who say they’ve tried everything and yet I find out their teen gets an allowance, has a credit card, cell phone, a car, you name it," he says. "When I tell parents they should take these things away, I’ve had many sort of say, 'Can we do that!?'”

Of course you can — and you should. Obviously, without money, communication and transportation, pot will be far more difficult to come by.

But there’s a bigger issue Knight is touching on: an alarming level of parent disempowerment nowadays. Part of the reason, he believes, is that far too many parents have bought into some poisonous myths: that all kids smoke pot and that their teens don’t care what they think.

The truth, says Richard Gallagher, director of the Parenting Institute at the New York University Child Study Center, is that by their senior year only 18 percent of adolescents are regular users of marijuana. And nearly all people care what their parents think of them (even if oftentimes teen bravado hides this fact).

“Parents do make a difference with regard to what their kids are involved in,” says Gallagher.

When children know you care about them and you do your best to listen to them, they want to please you. Although admittedly sometimes they need a little help getting there. In your son’s case, the best strategy to help him is to have close monitoring (again, this means limiting those luxuries that allow for freedom and anonymity) and convey a constant and consistent message: this family tolerates no drug use (remember, too, alcohol is a drug).

Also continue with counseling. But not just for your son. Consider taking part in the counseling or visiting Al-Anon-Alateen, a support group for families of alcoholics and drug abusers. Besides the camaraderie and coping strategies you may pick up, you’re telling your son that you’re not in denial and you’re not going to accept or ignore drug use. Moreover, seeking support and knowledge emphasizes how much you care.

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of the forthcoming book "Fearless Pregnancy," due out in November from Fair Winds Press.

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