Help! My 6-Year-Old Has Started Wetting Himself. Is He Being Sexually Abused?

Advice on manners and morals.
Nov. 5 2013 6:00 AM

A Wee Problem

In a live chat, Prudie counsels a woman worried her young son's wetting himself is a sign of sexual abuse.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

Q. How to Spot Child Abuse: About three weeks ago, my almost 6-year-old son started coming home from school/after-care with wet underwear and pants. This happened three times. He did not smell nor was it noticeable from the outside, so I did not realize it until we were already at home. He told me that he forgot to go to the bathroom and had an accident. I thought maybe he didn't want to ask to use the bathroom at his after-care program. So I reassured him that it was OK to ask, and I spoke to the director who said she would remind him as well. Then, this past weekend at home, he also had three accidents despite having free rein of the bathroom and my reminding him. He is remaining dry at night. He has not had any other changes in behavior, sleep, or eating. However, I am now concerned that he may have been sexually abused. Can you please help me allay my fears? What should I do from here? I hope I am overreacting, but this daytime wetting is new. He was potty-trained at age 3!

A: I agree a change in behavior this dramatic is concerning, but don't jump to the worst case scenario. There might be many other things going on: Maybe your son was bullied in the bathroom, maybe a teacher humiliated him when he had to go, maybe he's embarrassed if he has to move his bowels, etc. etc. But you need to have a quiet conversation with him in which you make clear you are not mad, you aren't even concerned about the wet clothes. You are wondering if something is bothering him. Here is some guidance from the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network about how to gently begin this conversation. I also think this should be brought up with his pediatrician. Describe what's happening, explain your concerns, and make an appointment for your son to get an examination and a talk with a doctor he trusts.

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Q. My Husband Has Moved Back to His Mother's Home: We live within a five-minute driving distance to my MIL. This has never caused an issue, until my FIL passed away unexpectedly some time ago. Since then, my husband has started sleeping at his mother's place. She lives in a small studio apartment with one double bed so I'm guessing they both sleep on the same bed, too. He comes over to our place to collect his clothes. Whenever I try talking to him, he says he doesn't like the arrangement either, but I'm far too individualistic and selfish. He says I should try harder to look after his widowed, elderly mother, but when I go to her place she largely ignores me and obviously doesn't like my company. Is this a normal situation for a worried son to look after his grieving mother? Or am I missing something here?

A: If your husband were 5 years old and his father died suddenly, it would make perfect sense that he would feel safer sleeping next to his mother. But this kind of thing is for sons who still sleep with teddy bears, not wives. Your father-in-law is gone, but apparently so is your marriage. Either your husband prefers to bunk with Mommy, or he's telling you he's there while he's actually spending the night somewhere else. Your attempts to discuss this outlandish arrangement are met with rude rebuffs. I think it's time for you two to discuss your living arrangements with a professional. If you choose to try a therapist first, I suggest you also put a divorce lawyer on retainer.

Q. Estranged Mother and a Funeral: My mother is a mentally ill, abusive alcoholic. Six months ago, she assaulted me in a drunken rage when I took her car keys, and then she blamed me for the altercation. After a lot of soul-searching, I decided it was best for me to not have any contact with her. I wasn't badly hurt (scratched and bruised) but I'm tired of being her victim. Since our estrangement is so recent, I'm still trying to navigate its impact. It hasn't been easy but I've been mostly OK. However, a family member has recently died and I'm at a loss. I'd like to attend the funeral but I am concerned that my mother will either try to start an argument with me or try to force a reconciliation. I don't know if I'd be able to handle either situation well at this point. Funerals are difficult enough; I don't want my issues with my mother to make it worse. Of course, if I don't attend, that could upset my nonestranged family members as well. Is it best to stay home and mourn privately? Should I sit in the back and be as unobtrusive as possible? I'm having trouble determining what's right in this situation.

A: You have made the healthy decision for you—although I am fearful of innocent people on the road if there is no one to stop your alcoholic mother from getting behind the wheel. But having decided to cut off relations with your mother does not mean that you are now the family pariah. I assume others have observed your mother's behavior and know what you're up against. If other family members know you've estranged yourself from her, some will tell you, "But she's your mother, you can't just cut her off!" In that case be firm and brief and say as painful as things are, this is better for everyone. As far as the funeral is concerned, please go. I hope you have someone in the family you trust you can look out for you and intervene if your mother starts making a scene. If your mother approaches you, just tell her you're both there to mourn and this is not the time to talk. If your mother starts to explode, the designated mourner should pull her away. You have made a painful decision, but it is the right one for you, so don't be defensive.

Q. Re: How to spot child abuse: This is a ridiculous confession. I don't remember what age I was but once out with my mother when she flushed the toilet it overflowed. This scared me and for a long time I was afraid of using public toilets. (I never confessed this to anyone.) When I started kindergarten (half-day) I tried to hold it until I got home. I was not always successful and so had a series of wetting my pants. I think my mother talked to the teacher as somehow I was encouraged to use the kindergarten's bathroom. So for the concerned mother she should be concerned, but it might be something stupid.

A: Thank you for this. That's why I'm saying the mother shouldn't jump to the worst conclusion. You have perfectly explicated the mind of the young child. There are so many things that could be going on at school that are making her son fearful of going to the bathroom. Let's hope if she starts a gentle, warm, totally understanding conversation, he can tell her what's bothering her—and let's hope it's something silly like this.

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