One day, when my 10-year-old daughter got home from camp, she turned to me and said, "Today, in the pool? A man came up and grabbed my butt."
Inside, I froze, but on the outside, I remained casual. "Oh, really? Tell me more."
"I was standing in the shallow end, and this man walked up behind me, and squeezed my butt."
"What did you do?" I asked, continuing to remain calm.
"I was so surprised. I didn't know what to do. I didn't say anything, I just walked away from him." She squirmed with embarrassment.
"Did you tell anyone at camp?"
"No, you were the first person I felt like I could trust."
To rule out a misunderstanding, I asked her to demonstrate what happened on me. She walked around behind me, and gave my butt cheek a sensual, deliberate squeeze.
I was so angry and horrified. One of my biggest fears is that my daughter would encounter a Bad Man. I was molested as a kid, and did not want her to have to endure trauma of any kind.
"Has anything like this ever happened to you before?" I asked.
That was a relief. She had made it ten years without incident.
I asked if she knew the man. She didn't. The campers used a community pool. I asked if she could describe him, but I could tell the information she was offering was pure guesswork.
I said, "I'm going to let camp and your father know what happened."
This alarmed her. "NO! Please don't! Don't tell anyone, it's too embarrassing! I don't want to get anyone in trouble." She felt creeped out and ashamed. "Actually, I don't even want to talk about it anymore. Please don't bring it up again."
I hugged her, told her I understood and loved her, and made her a snack.
Then I left her alone with a book so I could think about how to deal with it.
Was she telling the truth?
Should I just drop it? It was a minor incident. But what it he was lurking around the pool the next day? What if he had done it before? Of course he is counting on her not saying anything. Why did he do it? Is nowhere safe?
Should I call the camp and her father right now?
I was so confused. Was there advice online about how to deal with something like this? I googledWhat to do when someone touches your child.
I didn't find much; most of the stuff was about kids touching other kids and how alarming that is. There was this helpful tip sheet on RAINN about how to talk to your child if you suspect sexual abuse.
One person I knew I could call for guidance for sure was my partner, Matthew. He was the most level-headed, logical person I knew.
In private, I whispered the details to him.
"Should I honor her request to keep a lid on it?"
"Absolutely not! That's exactly what people who pull this shit are counting on. You need to be open and honest about it, Darlin'."
OF COURSE. That's my philosophy, after all.
Now I had to figure out how to proceed. EVERYONE I was about to approach was not going to like the topic of conversation. No wonder people want to avoid it.
As gently as I could, I explained to my daughter that while I understood why she wanted to avoid the yucky incident, it was important to talk about it, especially with the right people. I assured her she had done nothing wrong and that she did the right thing by telling me. We had no choice but to let others know about it, otherwise the man might take that as a sign that what he did was acceptable and will do it again, or something worse, to her or another child.
The next morning, when I dropped her off at camp, I asked to speak with the camp director privately. I was so nervous. I was worried he wouldn't take my daughter's allegation seriously, or that he would think she's a troublemaker.
I made sure to look him in the eye, took a deep breath, and said in a shaky voice, "Yesterday when my daughter came home from camp, she told me a man touched her butt in the swimming pool."
I was so relieved at his response. "Why didn't she tell a counselor?" was his first question.
I told him she didn't feel comfortable talking with anyone about it until she got home.
"It's really important to say something as soon as something like that happens -- might even be able to catch the guy that way."
I agreed, but wow sometimes that stuff takes you off guard and stuns you into shocked silence. Did that really just happen to me?
Personally, I was glad -- thrilled -- that she felt comfortable enough with me to tell me the same day it happened. I experienced similar situations as a kid, and it took me weeks to tell my parents. It festered inside me and turned into a metal infection. It's so important to address it quickly and nip it in the bud.
I asked the director not to bring it up with my daughter without checking with me first, as she was sensitive about it. He told me to write him an email with all the details, and they would file an incident report. I did so right away, and that afternoon the pool manager contacted me to assure me that the pool area would be carefully monitored and supervised for any inappropriate activity.
The camp handled it respectfully and professionally. Nothing got blown out of proportion.
I called my ex-husband to let him know, which was difficult because I knew he would be outraged. Our child had been violated, manhandled. All things considered, he took it well, and that night all three of us had dinner together to let her know we both supported and loved her, and to reiterate how important it is to speak up in situations like this.
I was also grateful that it was a relatively benign incident to use as a teaching moment. It could have been so much worse.
That night, I sat my daughter down and told her, "I am so proud of you for handling this all so well. You were a kid minding her own business and a man came up and took liberties. It happens sometimes, and can be shocking, but it's important to be aware that sort of thing exists and speak up. If something like this ever happens again, please tell a counselor right away. And it's perfectly fine to shout NO and look right at the guy. YOU are in charge of your body. And remember you can always talk to me about ANYTHING, good or bad."
A few days later, I asked her if she would mind if I shared her story on my website so that it could help other parents learn how to deal with this kind of thing. "Of course you can share it!" she agreed instantly. "I think it's very good for everyone to learn together, people are supposed to help each other."
Any shame she initially experienced was gone. We had processed it in a timely and healthy manner. We were moving forward with new-found knowledge and optimism.
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