Behind the Scenes: What's The Difference Between Playing Doctor and Abuse?

The question below is from an anonymous poster on Facebook:

"My 5 year old, Alex, sometimes sleeps over at a mom friend's house when I'm working the night shift. Alex told me that the mom's daughter, Emma age 6, was showing adult videos to her and the other kids that were there. She was also using her dolls to replicate sex. At what point is this abuse and what's normal "playing doctor"? And what do I say to the mom?"

Here's my response:

Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash

Young children are experimenters when it comes to their bodies, but they are not sexual. This means that while they may engage in age appropriate behavior, like touching their genitals or being curious about adult's genitals, their exploration is not intended with the goal of pleasure. They are curious about their bodies and what's different about their body compared to other people's bodies.

One way young kids explore is to play doctor. The concept to keep in mind is who's playing. If both kids playing doctor are around the same age, in the same grade, etc. it's usually harmless. Those kids are on the same "level" with each other. They both feel powerful in the relationship. But when a child who is older, physically bigger, in a higher grade, etc. the power dynamic shifts.

Remove the idea of playing doctor and imagine two siblings (6 and almost 5) playing and something shifts. Who is quicker at explaining things? Who is more persuasive in talking to a parent..or to each other? Who has better language? Essentially, who has more power? The older child.

The difference between abuse and playing doctor is power.

If a 6 year old is acting in a sexual way (showing adult videos to friends or using her dolls to replicate sex, etc.) alarm bells should go off. A 6 year old is not trying to abuse her peers. But she is likely replicating activities she has been shown, coerced into doing or exposed to.

Assuming unrestricted computer access, a child who is a new speller and reader would also need to know what to search for and how to find it. She would have needed to have someone show her adult videos. If the child stumbled upon her parents having sex, it is unlikely that she would replicate that activity with dolls. She has no context for sex of any kind. It doesn't mean anything so it's not a natural activity to engage her dolls in. This 6 year old's actions are very different from playing doctor.

The incident was upsetting enough for Alex to tell a parent about it but the parent believing Alex is huge. Believing a child when they disclose something helps them recover more quickly and builds trust between parent and child. Alex's parent doesn't need to blame or shame Emma's mom. But it is time to talk to her. Let's call her Jessica. The anonymous poster has two options with Jessica:

Option 1: Start with concern for Emma, ask directly.

"Jessica, Alex told me that Emma was showing the kids last Saturday some sexual videos and using her dolls to show sex. That's not normal sexual exploration for kids their age. Have you ever noticed anything like this with Emma?"

Option 2: Start with concern for Alex, leave space for dialogue.

"Jessica, Alex told me that Emma was showing the kids last Saturday some sexual videos and using her dolls to show sex. That's not normal sexual exploration for kids their age and Alex was upset enough to tell me about it."

Option 1 is more direct; parent is looking for answers from Jessica. Option 2 allows both parents to have more of a conversation about what happened. Depending on the depth of the relationship, Alex's parent may prefer dialogue with Jessica. Either way, the end of the conversation needs to be very clear: "Alex can't do sleepovers or playdates at your house anymore. It's not okay for Emma to interact with Alex that way."

In conclusion, even though Emma is not trying to abuse kids at age 6, that may not be true when she is older. Children who feel equally powerful can make choices with each other, even playing doctor. Kids who aren't as powerful cannot. At some point, Emma will be more powerful than the other kids around her. Sexual abuse does happen between children. And sleepovers are especially vulnerable times for abuse, including exposure to internet porn.

The effects of sexual abuse can linger for a child's life, surfacing at some points more than others. I lead a free weekly support group for sexual abuse survivors and hear how sexual abuse changed a life. Sometimes basic information and sample language helps us speak out for safety of others and change their lives. Children need parents belief and they also need us to know we will do our best to protect them. Safe, healthy kids are kids who can change the world.