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Stepdaughter Is Overly Affectionate
Q: I need to know if the following situation is inappropriate: My eight-and-a-half-year-old stepdaughter lives nearby with her mother. The mother does not have a bed of her own. She sleeps with her daughter in her twin-size bed every night. They occasionally bathe together, use the bathroom without privacy, and can often be seen kissing each other on the lips repeatedly. When the daughter is with her father and me she spends time on the phone with her mother making kissing sounds and saying things like "I can't wait to snuggle with you." She begs to sleep with us and asks us if we will kiss her on the lips.
She is overly affectionate to everyone she meets -- kissing, hugging, licking, and crawling onto the laps of anyone within reach. She is not a small child anymore and her behavior makes me uncomfortable. She is an extremely bright, funny, and sweet girl, but something seems bizarre to me.
A: Some of the behaviors you describe -- kissing her mom on the lips, being physically affectionate with others -- are not worrisome when taken individually, and considered innocent manifestations of an affectionate, friendly girl. But the cumulative, detailed description of her sexualized activities concerns me. There appears to be an obsessive nature to this girl's need to sleep with and be kissed on the lips by her mom, and by you and your husband.
I'm surprised her mom doesn't provide her with a bed of her own to sleep in when she is staying with her, rather than setting up a situation where mother and daughter have to sleep snuggling one another. Being overly affectionate with everyone she meets is clearly inappropriate social behavior for a girl approaching nine years old. Her making kissing sounds over the phone to her mom as she tells her she can't wait to snuggle (in bed) with her is also an abnormal, sexualized discussion between mother and daughter.
She may be going through the early stages of puberty and experiencing sexual feelings that she wants to act upon in these affectionate ways. But what troubles me is the obsessive, incessant, and sexualized behavior both with the adults she knows and with strangers.
I am also concerned by her mother's apparent encouragement of these sexualized behaviors. Some experts might suggest that your stepdaughter has been acting out in this sexualized manner because she may have suffered sexual abuse of some kind. I don't wish to alarm you with this observation, but I would strongly suggest that you and your husband consult with a child therapist who has dealt with children who have manifested these types of overly affectionate, sexualized behaviors.
Do not take her to a therapist before you have had consultations on your own. It would be very helpful if her mom would participate, but I suspect there might be resistance there. Ask for her help, in any event. I don't think these are behaviors that should merely be allowed to continue. There are too many of them occurring on a continuing basis and their origins and obsessive nature need to be explored with a professional.
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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.