Children and adolescents who engage in problematic sexual behaviors have different motivations, risks, and protective factors as they face different risks, they have different histories, and therefore their need for support systems will be different. A one size fits all intervention will not work for every child and teen. Our responses and support must be individualized for each child.
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. 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.
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.
A range of developmental as well as external factors may contribute to atypical sexual behaviors. Children who display problematic sexual behaviors can benefit from intervention and treatment.
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 from half to two-thirds have been sexually victimized. 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, although this is not always the case.
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 or other trauma, exposure to sexuality and sexual behavior in the media, and other causes.
Fact 7: Children with sexual behavior problems differ from adolescents and adults who engage in sexually abusive behaviors.
While approximately 90% of adolescents and 95% adults who sexually offend are male, 65% of preschool children with sexual behavior problems are female.
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 smaller their range of coping strategies. For example, some young children may use masturbation as a self-soothing strategy during times of stress.
Fact 8: Children with sexually problematic behavior can benefit from treatment.
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. Treatment providers can help address problematic behaviors and the underlying issues to help these children develop appropriate, positive, and prosocial behaviors.
- APPENDIX: ATSA Practice Guidelines for Assessment, Treatment, and Intervention with Adolescents Who Have Engaged in Sexually Abusive Behavior (2018)
- INFOGRAPHIC: Preventing the Development of Harmful Sexual Behaviors in Youth (2018)
- ATSA Task Force on Children With Sexual Behavior Problems (2006)
- Children with Sexual Behavior Problems Fact Sheets
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