A Child Smeared Poop in Our Home; Should I Tell Her Parents?

Last week, my husband's sister and her family stayed with us in our five-bedroom house. Their daughter, age 8, had a guest bedroom to herself. After they left, I was cleaning that room and discovered a substance on the wall that wasn't there before. Not knowing what it was, I tried to smudge it off with my finger and then smelled it. My heart almost stopped when I realized it was human excrement! It was on the wall near the closet and also near the bed. It could not have gotten there by accident. The girl must have intentionally smeared it there. I am shocked and upset. She seems like a nice girl otherwise, though the family has alluded to some developmental concerns without going into detail. My question is, should I call the family and let them know what I found, or should I just clean it up, move on, and save everyone (the girl included) the embarrassment? Is it the sign of a mental health problem? It's gross and unsanitary, but I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, and I don't want to get anyone mad at me. —Raising a Stink
Dear Raising a Stink,

How upsetting to make such a discovery! It is unusual, developmentally, for an 8-year-old to smear feces on the wall, though I would hesitate to jump to the conclusion of mental health issues or other concerns without having more information.

It doesn’t sound as if there has been a lot of open communication between your families historically. If that is the case, I can understand your hesitation. It sounds as if you are trying to be sensitive to their feelings, which is admirable. If, however, there are some developmental or behavioral concerns, it is important that her parents are fully informed so that they can take appropriate steps to get her the support she needs.

My recommendation would be to share the information in as nonjudgmental a way as possible. You can mention what you found, express that it puzzled you, and that you just wanted them to be aware.

My recommendation would be to share the information in as nonjudgmental a way as possible. You can mention what you found, express that it puzzled you, and that you just wanted them to be aware. Be sure to avoid jumping to conclusions or making accusations about intent. Sticking to the facts can make it easier to present difficult information. You said she “seems like a nice girl otherwise”—she likely IS a nice girl, and while it may be difficult to fathom what led to her actions, the simplest way to find out what happened is to ask.

It might be an awkward conversation. The parents might react defensively or with embarrassment. They may also appreciate knowing. What does your husband think? It is his sister and her family, after all. Does he have suggestions on what approach might work best? Would it be easier if the information came from him?

You also may want to consider what you would want if the roles were reversed. If it were your child, would you rather find out right away, thus allowing you the opportunity to respond to your child’s needs? Think about what it might be like the next time they visit. Would you feel comfortable putting her in the guest room again? Chances are, this incident would come up, and then the embarrassment and awkwardness could be coupled with frustration at not having heard about it before.

Best of luck,
Erika

Erika Myers
Erika Myers, MS, MEd, LPC, NCC is a licensed psychotherapist and former educator specializing in working with families in transition (often due to separation or divorce) as well as individuals seeking support with relationship issues, parenting, depression, anxiety, grief/loss/bereavement, and managing major life changes. Although her theoretical orientation is eclectic, she most frequently uses a person-centered, strengths-based approach and cognitive behavioral therapy in her practice.
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  • Stephanie

    Stephanie

    October 9th, 2015 at 8:18 AM

    I am sure that while the conversation will be uncomfortable, I am a parent would want to know and I would assume that these parents would want to know too

  • Adam

    Adam

    October 9th, 2015 at 10:46 AM

    Well that’s one talk that I would NOT want to have to have!

  • steven

    steven

    October 10th, 2015 at 8:49 AM

    Look, it is obvious from this type of behavior that the child needs some help. Will it be pleasant to tell the parents? No it will not. But you have to do it. This is a child who has something going on in life that she doesn’t know how to talk about so there you go, acting out. I am sure that the parents want nothing but the best for them and that they would appreciate your willingness to help in any way that you can.

  • Elise

    Elise

    October 13th, 2015 at 10:24 AM

    Am I wrong to think OMG I would have died, and that it would have to be a long time before I let the child come back over for a spend the night party again?

  • Millie

    Millie

    October 26th, 2015 at 1:56 PM

    Do you really think that this is the first time that this has happened?

  • Melanie

    Melanie

    October 27th, 2015 at 2:56 PM

    I agree with the therapist who answered the question that any conversation would need to be approached in an extremely non-judgemental, non-accusatory manner. I agree that the best way to do that would be to start from a position of puzzlement. Just plain wondering, as genuine as can be. But I have this nagging question and that is are there any children in the home of the person asking the question? If there are children living there, then I’m not sure I would be as certain about who did it. You can’t assume anything. If it were my own child I would definitely want to know. From my perspective, after working in psychiatry and mental health for decades, smearing feces is a huge red flag indicating something is seriously wrong. It’s really only seen in people who are seriously mentally ill. I would be scared if my child did that but would absolutely want to know as soon as possible.

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