Fast facts about children who display problematic sexual behaviors

Fact 1: Children typically engage in a range of exploratory sexual behaviors.

Childhood is a time of growth, learning, and exploration. It is normal for young children to express curiosity about sexuality and to not fully understand appropriate boundaries. A child’s age and developmental level are key to determining whether a child’s behaviors are normal or represent potential problems.

Fact 2: Some childhood sexual exploratory behavior is normal.

Developmentally normal sexual behaviors in young children include looking at genitals, unsophisticated touching (i.e., no insertion or use of mouth), and masturbation. This type of sexual play typically occurs between children who have an ongoing mutually enjoyable friendship and who are of similar age, size, and social and emotional development. The play is lighthearted, spontaneous, and fun.

Fact 3: Some behaviors are atypical and may need to be addressed.

Atypical sexual behaviors involve children of different ages, sizes, and social and emotional developmental levels. These behaviors can have an aggressive quality involving use of threats, coercion, or force that may be social or physical, a pattern of inappropriate sexual acts, and secrecy. Problematic behaviors also can include compulsive, self-stimulating activity and engaging in extensive mutual sexual interaction with other children. These types of behaviors are problematic and may require intervention.

Fact 4: Sexual behavior problems in children do not represent a specific diagnosable disorder.

Sexual behavior problems in children represent a set of behaviors that fall outside acceptable societal limits rather than a specific diagnosable disorder. Children under age 12 are identified as having atypical sexual behavior, not sexually abusive behavior, due to their young age, developmental level, and the continual changes that occur throughout childhood. 

Fact 5: The majority of children who display atypical sexual behaviors are not on a life path to sexual offending.

Children ages 12 and younger with sexual behavior problems should not be considered to be the equivalent of mini-adults who engage in some of the same victimizing behaviors. It is important when children exhibit sexually problematic behavior to understand how their age and developmental level, as well as any external factors, may contribute to their behaviors.

Fact 6: Sexual behavior problems in children can be a reaction to trauma or victimization.

Studies of very young children with sexual behavior problems suggest that 45% to 80% have been sexually victimized (Kendall-Tackett, Meyer Williams, and Finkelhor, 1993). Research also suggests that the younger the child who engages in problematic sexual behaviors, the more likely the child is to have experienced sexual abuse (Kendall-Tackett, Meyer Williams, and Finkelhor, 1993).

However, sexual abuse is not the only precursor to a child displaying problematic sexual behaviors. Children can engage in atypical sexual behaviors for a range of reasons including being victims of sexual abuse, experiencing physical or emotional maltreatment such as neglect or abandonment, exposure to family violence, exposure to sexuality and sexual behavior in the media, and other causes (Friedrich, 2001, 2003; Friedrich, Davies, Feher, and Wright, 2003; Schwartz, Cavanaugh, Pimental, and Prentky, 2006).

Fact 7: Children with sexual behavior problems differ from adolescents and adults who engage in sexually abusive behaviors.

While upwards of 95% of adolescents and adults who sexually offend are male (OJDDP, Juvenile Justice Bulletin, Deember 2009; Greenfeld, 1997), 65% of preschool children with sexual behavior problems are female (Silovsky and Niec, 2002).

When compared to adults who sexually offend, children with sexual behavior problems are more likely to engage in impulsive sexual activity rather than well-planned or rationalized acts. The failure of children to empathize with their victims in these situations may not be pathological, but merely a product of their stage of development.

Differences also exist between very young (ages 9 and younger) and older (ages 10-12) children. In general, the younger the child, the more limited their cognitive development, and the more limited their repertoire of coping strategies. For example, some small children may use masturbation as a self-soothing strategy during times of stress (Silovsky and Bonner, 2003). 

Fact 8: Children with sexually problematic behavior are more vulnerable to victimization.

Children who display sexual behavior problems, related problems in social development due to aggressive and impulsive behaviors, poor boundaries, and indiscriminate friendliness are more vulnerable to victimization. These behaviors also create stress for the caregivers of these children and can lead to difficult parent-child interactions. Working with treatment providers to address the behaviors, underlying issues, and responses is essential to help these children begin to develop appropriate, positive, and prosocial behaviors.