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She Answers the Door in Nothing but a Nightie…What Do You Do?

After knocking three times, you hear someone inside the apartment. You wait a bit, trying to decide whether to knock again. Jessa’s mother hollers that’s she’sshutterstock_195488351 coming, then a few seconds later she opens the door. She’s tells you to come on in but you hesitate.

Jessa’s mother is wearing a see-through nightie and nothing else.

What do you do?

You really have two choices – ignore or address the situation. You can ignore it, realizing that it will probably be a pretty uncomfortable visit, especially if she doesn’t get dressed on her own. Or you can address it by saying something to her…but what?

Option #1 – Ignore It

Choosing to ignore the mother’s inappropriate clothing might be your choice if you feel too uncomfortable to say something. You might reason that you are in the family’s home and who are you to judge how the mother dresses? We’re often well-trained not to judge families’ ways of life, especially when they differ from our own. If you chose to ignore the situation, it’s important to realize that you could be opening the door for other inappropriate behavior. This could be dangerous if the parent is flirting with you (which happens) and this “show” is purposeful. Ignoring it could put you in an awkward situation today, and a worse one tomorrow if you don’t establish a professional boundary. Consider this – if you feel so uncomfortable that you choose to ignore it, should you be going into the home at all?

Option #2 – Address It

What would you say? There are several ways you might verbally manage the situation. You could be straight-forward and ask the parent to get dressed. You could tell Jessa’s mother that you aren’t comfortable coming into the home with her in her night clothes. You could casually say “I’ll wait here until you get dressed.” and stay outside. Or, you could offer to reschedule, saying something like “It looks like I woke you up. Is this still a good time?”

It can get even more tricky when the parent isn’t uncomfortable with the situation but you are. You might say to Jessa’s mother that you’ll wait til she gets dressed, and she could reply that it’s no problem, you can come on in. Managing this situation all depends on where YOU draw the boundary, and that depends on your gut instinct and comfort level.

A Rule of Thumb

I think it’s a good rule of thumb to never go into a home where an adult is not appropriately dressed. For some people, this might mean all clothes on, and for others, maybe just no private parts showing. You never want to put yourself in a compromising position, whatever your comfort level. The hard part is seeing the future because it’s not always clear what ramifications allowing a situation like this to occur will have. Try to think ahead and always keep in mind the importance of healthy professional boundaries. We do respect families’ preferences, and you are a guest in their home, but you do not have to be subjected to inappropriate behavior.

The ability to adapt to different situations and environments is a hallmark of a good early interventionist but there are limits. Most adults won’t answer the door in their underwear, but if you find yourself in this situation, know that you have the right to step back and speak up. Being clothed (or not) sends a message, whether it is that the parent is very (too) comfortable with you, doesn’t care, or doesn’t want you in the home. I think a situation like this needs to be addressed. What do you think?

Have you been in this situation before? What did you do? What would you do if you met Jessa’s mom at the door?


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6 Comments to “She Answers the Door in Nothing but a Nightie…What Do You Do?”

  1. I agree that we should always be mindful of not putting ourselves in compromising positions. We have to be the guardians of our own safety as we travel to different homes in our communities. I would definitely ask the Mom to dress more appropriately for our session. Offering another appointment time is also an option I would use. I personally have arrived at a morning appointment and had a man that I had not seen before in the home answer the door wrapped in just a sheet! He invited me inside to wait for Mom and the child. I politely but firmly told him that I would wait outside for Mom to come to the door. She came down in a nightgown; obviously I had interrupted something! I did ask her to dress more appropriately so we could play with her son on the floor and she did.

    • I really like how you say we have to be “guardians of our own safety,” Wilma. That’s a powerful phrase. Sounds like you have had a very similar encounter and handled it very well.! Thanks for sharing your story!

  2. Phew! This brought back a memory. I worked with a family and the mother had intellectual disabilities. Her sense of “appropriately clad” was quite different than mine. When she answered the door in her undies one day, I did tell her I’d wait outside until she was dressed. Once she was dressed and I was inside, we had a discussion about what was appropriate and inappropriate dressing for different situations.

    • It sounds like you turned this awkward situation into a learning opportunity for the mother, which is wonderful Cori! It’s just shocking to me that anyone would answer the door in her undies but people’s boundaries really are different. As you and Wilma both described, there is a respectful and professional way to handle these situations…and then you just move on with the visit!

  3. I found it interesting that you decided to tackle this issue as it is quite an issue as professionals doing our work in homes. It is a particular dilemma for me, a male, working with predominantly mothers in their homes, often alone without their spouses. I highly value the phrase that Wilma used as well, “guardians of our own safety”. That was so well articulated. I feel an extra sense of guarding my own safety being a male working in homes. In situations such as these, I normally tell them that I will wait outside until they are dressed or that I will call to reschedule at another, more convenient time without leaving it up to them.

    • I so appreciate you adding the male perspective to this discussion, Jeff! I also think your more direct way of handling this situation can be completely appropriate, especially when boundaries have been crossed or are getting fuzzy. Indicating that you will call to reschedule rather than suggesting is probably a much more powerful way of drawing that boundary. Asking certainly does leave room for the parent to insist that the visit be held which means having to deal with the uncomfortable situation longer or even again in the future. As with many things interventionists face, the exact response is probably situation-specific but definitely needs a clear and firm response, whether the inappropriate situation was purposeful- as in flirting or for intimidation – or not.

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