Talking to children

Talking to children about potentially inappropriate contact by their health care provider

Parents of or those responsible for a child who was cared for by a physician who has been criminally charged with inappropriate patient contact likely will wonder whether their child or the child they are responsible for might also have been a victim of inappropriate contact. Parents can and should approach their children in this scenario, but it’s important to know that how you approach them is the key to success. Consider the following when having a conversation with a child about this topic.

  • When approaching a child, start off by simply asking if anything happened during a recent doctor visit that bothered or frightened them. The inquiry doesn’t need to be any more specific than that.
  • If a parent doesn’t want to specifically single out the doctor, that’s OK.
  • It’s important to follow the child’s lead after asking about inappropriate physician behavior. If he or she says nothing happened, leave it alone. Keep the door open for conversation down the road, but don’t push the child.
  • If the child says something inappropriate happened, be calm and supportive. Use phrases like, “You have done nothing wrong” and “It’s not your fault.”
  • If details come out that are shocking, it’s important not to overreact in front of your child. React warmly and support the child and his or her feelings.
  • It’s OK to ask questions – you don’t want to miss anything, but don’t pry and make an issue if there wasn’t one.
  • Some children may react matter-of-factly and not seemed too bothered by an inappropriate incident. That’s OK and normal.
  • If the child is clearly upset by the incident, seek professional help. However, every child is different. Some may not need any treatment at all, while others will need to confront what happened.
  • It’s important to answer questions the child is asking, not questions the parents may be thinking the child is asking.
  • If parents haven’t talked to their child about bad or inappropriate touch, this incident can be a good time to do so.
  • If a child says something scary or bothersome happened during a recent doctor visit, it doesn’t necessarily mean the incident was inappropriate. A normal practice – such as a throat culture – could have made the child uncomfortable.
  • Keep it in perspective. The vast majority of doctors, teachers and others who interact with children are very good people.

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Daniel Broughton, M.D.
Mayo Clinic Pediatrician