Q. There’s a woman at work who has a 10 year old daughter and an 8 year old boy. I’ve seen the daughter masturbate in the car and in other public areas. Her mom not only doesn’t mind (or tell her to do it with privacy) but she encourages her to do it anytime she feels anxious or uncomfortable. She’s done this for years, as a replacement for sucking her thumb or carrying a favorite blanket or doll. I just think this might be setting the little girl up for trouble in the future. Is this potentially damaging to the child? Or her brother, who witnesses her do it? If this is her only coping mechanism, what should I suggest to the mom, if anything?

A. This is a tricky issue since this is a co-worker and maybe someone you do not know very well. You need to ask yourself do you want to become involved in this situation since your concerns for the child could backfire and your co-worker may be greatly offended by your observation. She could of course thank you for your concern and truly mean it. The truth is, it could go either way but my feeling is that she will likely be offended.

With regard to your question about whether or not this is potentially damaging, it is likely that it is damaging primarily because the child is exhibiting this behavior in public where it is clearly inappropriate, and in front of her brother, all of which you mentioned.

My advice is this: Ask yourself if you really want to take on this matter and all of its potential consequences. Chances are your co-worker will be offended and angry at your observation. On the other hand, your remark may be just what is needed to get the child into see a counselor and finally put a stop to this inappropriate behavior (which by the way is likely a soothing technique like you suspected). If you do decide to speak to your co-worker, pull her aside privately to express the concerns. Don’t refer to the behavior as masturbating and assure your co-worker that you are a concerned friend and not someone who is judging her. Good luck.