Is it Normal for an Adult to Play “Doctor” with a Child?

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Reader’s Question

Is it normal for an adult to play “doctor” with a child? The woman (grandmother type/self-appointed “Nana”) likes to take two little girls to play at her home on a regular basis (maybe once or twice a month). Nana plays doctor with them each time they go. When the younger girl was asked how they play doctor, the reply from the 4-year-old was that she pretends she doesn’t feel well — then Nana pretends to be the doctor, then Nana makes them feel better. “How does Nana make you feel better?” “She rubs my belly and my arms and legs.” One day the 7 year-old had made a medical chart while playing dolls. She wrote down “Lungs good — shot” but then erased it. When asked about the chart, the child ran into the closet and hid herself and didn’t want to talk about it. (I left it alone.) Then one evening she said she wasn’t feeling well and wanted Grandma to “Do something to make her feel better.” She wanted her belly stroked downward from her belly button. (I rubbed her back instead.)

Included in the behavior over the past year or more are the following:

  • “Nana” says to keep a secret about a gift the little girl was getting from her. Girl can’t tell her parents or her real grandmother.
  • Girl comes home after playing at “Nana’s” (always without parents) and says that she had fun and did so many different things. When asked what she did, girl mentions crafts, snacks. Little sister (
  • says, “They played a game on Nana’s bed and I didn’t want to play so I sat on a chair in the other room and was crying and crying.” Asked big sister (
  • what game were you playing and was little sister just being difficult — Big sister refuses to answer and curls up into fetal position saying “I don’t want to tell you.” (I dropped the subject immediately).
  • Isolates girls at church and whispers to them.
  • Tells girls she wants them to sleep over.
  • Girls come home from being with them and suddenly they point out that a little plastic animal is a boy because it has a bump under it.
  • 4-year-old says hello to real grandma with a deliberate tickling in grandmother’s crotch.
  • 4-year-old, on hands and knees and grunting, pretends to be giving birth to a puppy.

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All these things happen a day or two after being with “Nana.” And there is more but these are the things I can think of right now.

Psychologist’s Reply

This is not “playing doctor” — it’s something else. Based on the information provided, these activities are inappropriate at a minimum. Obviously, the children are receiving “sexualized” information, play activities, and even touch. The fact that the children exhibit emotional distress and hide secret information tells us this is an inappropriate play situation. While adults often play “secrets” with children — as in grinning and saying “Don’t tell your mother I’m buying her a necklace” — secrets that create emotional distress, crying, and shame are not playful. Those secrets have been discussed in an atmosphere of tension and intimidation, creating the emotional distress we see in the children.

Without further information, we can’t label this sexual offending — yet. Sexual offenders typically engage in a pattern of “grooming” with their intended victims. Some of the stages of grooming include:

  • gaining the trust of the victim and separating the victim from others,
  • gradually increasing physical proximity and touch,
  • gradually sexualizing touch and physical contact,
  • introducing gifts and special favors later used to bribe the victims,
  • introducing sexual offending as a game or as a nonthreatening activity, and
  • using shame and intimidation to continue the behavior.

The connection between unusual behaviors and recent visits with Nana strengthen the impression that those contacts are outside the acceptable range.


  • Allow no further unsupervised visits with Nana. No sleepovers.
  • Gradually detach from Nana, first by visiting with adult supervision as when stopping by to say hello or talking briefly at church, then stopping all contact with the exception of obvious public contact.
  • Avoid times when Nana has an opportunity to discuss secrets alone with the children, especially the older child.
  • Don’t interrogate the older child about what happened. As the situation calms, she will gradually offer information on her own about the play activity.
  • If the children continue to show unusual behavior, especially if such behavior has a sexual content, consider professional counseling for the children involved.

Adults play a variety of games and situations with children — but the type of play activity should be created by the child, not the adult. What you are describing is an adult decision to “play doctor” and the children are exhibiting signs and behaviors that tell us the play activity may be inappropriate. As responsible adults, we are obligated to protect children not only from inappropriate behavior — but from any situation that looks or seems inappropriate.

For some adults, there is a high tolerance and acceptance for sexualized conversation, teasing, play, and interaction — even in the presence of children. Poor judgment can sometimes bring that high tolerance and acceptance into play activities with children. While Nana may be one of these adults, it doesn’t change our need to protect the children from inappropriate adult behavior.

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