Help! I Believe My Father-in-Law Is Abusing My Daughter

Please help me. I have suspicions that my father-in-law is inappropriately touching my 4-year-old daughter, maybe sexually. But I can't prove it and I know if I dare raise the possibility with my mom she will disown me. I never thought my father-in-law was capable of this, and I don't even know how to go about proving that he is. You're probably wondering where my suspicions come from. Well, I don't leave her alone with him anymore but when all three of us are in a room together she stays as close to me as possible, even hiding behind me, and when I ask her what's wrong, she won't say and just looks scared and tries not to look at him. I catch him looking at her out of the corner of my eye sometimes and I don't know if he's threatened her or what. I've asked him why she seems so scared of him and he just shrugs. She's not like this with anyone else, even other men. I haven't seen physical signs of abuse other than some occasional small bruises that could be explained by child's play. I guess call it "mother's intuition" or whatever, but something isn't right. Something is off. Part of me wants to outright ask my daughter if he has touched her, but since I can't say for certain he's guilty of what I suspect, I feel like planting the suggestion in her head would possibly do more harm than good. Should I just outright ask him if he's touched her and see how he responds and risk my mother's wrath (and his)? The one thing I am sure of is that I don't want my daughter being abused and she is unwilling to speak up so far. —Worried Mom
Dear Worried Mom,

Of course you are concerned! Anytime we see a behavior like that in a child and she or he is unable or unwilling to explain the change, we fear the worst. Your primary responsibility is to protect your daughter. Your mother and father-in-law may get offended and angry, but that can’t be a reason to ignore your fears.

Since you are working from intuition, it may be worth looking into having an evaluation done with a good, reputable child therapist to explore if anything has happened with your daughter. It is true that you don’t want to plant ideas in her head, but you also want to find out if something scary or inappropriate has happened and help her process it. A good therapist can do that without planting ideas. It may be that your father-in-law has been inappropriate with her. If so, you will want to connect her with professional supports as soon as possible.

Your mother and father-in-law may get offended and angry, but that can’t be a reason to ignore your fears.

It also might be that she had a bad dream about him and is now scared of him. It may be that he was stern with her and she got upset and doesn’t want to engage with him. Without knowing more, it is hard to know how to proceed. I don’t want to diminish your concerns—until you know for certain that he is a safe person for her, absolutely continue to make sure that you supervise their interactions.

How receptive do you think your mother and father-in-law would be to a conversation that explored whether they had noticed a change in the way your daughter is reacting to him? If you approach it from a place of curiosity rather than accusation, you may be able to learn more. If nothing untoward has happened, they may be concerned and confused as well.

That said, if you want to wait to address any of this with them until you have more information, you can certainly do so. You know your family dynamics and should proceed in the safest way possible for everyone, particularly your daughter.

Best of luck,

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.
  • Leave a Comment
  • Julianna

    March 20th, 2015 at 11:59 AM

    I would be scared to death and furious all at the same time. I say that this is no situation where you want to have your daughter’s life endangered like this. I would suggest having the talk sooner rather than later so that you don’t take the chance of having something like this happen again.

  • Leslie

    March 21st, 2015 at 6:00 AM

    Who cares who you offend?
    If this is your child and you are concerned then you HAVE to find out if there is a real problem there.

  • liz

    March 23rd, 2015 at 11:23 AM

    I think that a valuable first step would be to schedule an appointment with a counselor or therapist who works with children and sort of get a feel for what they think could have happened. They may also be able to engage your daughter in a conversation that could help you get some answers to your questions that you have.

  • Calleigh

    March 25th, 2015 at 3:51 AM

    This is so much more important that worrying who gets offended. This is something that your daughter could have to deal with for the rest of her life. Seek out some answers and don’t bury your head in the sand for fear of what others may think. If you suspect that there is an issue then you owe it to so many people to see if that is the case.

  • ruth Y

    March 28th, 2015 at 11:23 AM

    Could it just be that she is being shy?

  • Ronald

    April 2nd, 2015 at 2:08 PM

    Wow this could really burn some bridges
    but so much better to be safe about this
    I think that anyone could respect what you are trying to do, and they get offended, then so be it.

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