Problematic Sexual Behavior in Children

Zena L., Editor

Family Advocacy Program Managers, like you, can help parents, caregivers, teachers and other professionals who work with children in your military community address problematic sexual behavior (PSB) in children and youth. Make sure your community knows that when a child or youth exhibits or is impacted by PSB, it is you who will reach out and offer guidance, support and resources. Let them know they are not alone, and that there is treatment available for the child. Your community needs to know what behaviors they should look out for – educate them on the difference between normative and problematic sexual behavior by sharing the information below.

Sexual Development Is a Healthy Part of Growing Up

  • Some behaviors are normative (typical) for the child’s age:
    • Sexual exploration begins at birth and is a normal part of development – children and youth are naturally curious about their bodies and sex. All aspects of children’s development (cognitive, language, motor, social, emotional, sexual) are linked to each other. Sexual health exploration during play is healthy and natural.
  • Some behaviors might be cause for concern (varies by child’s age)
  • Some behaviors are problematic

Normative Sexual Behavior in Children

  • Spontaneous
  • Intermittent
  • Light-hearted and playful
  • Occurs between children of similar age, size and ability
  • Exploring their own bodies through touching or rubbing their private parts, “playing doctor” or copying adult behaviors such as kissing and holding hands
  • Responds to adult intervention and rules around the behavior

Normative sexual behavior is not coercive, and does not cause discomfort, fear or shame.

Problematic Sexual Behavior in Children

  • The behavior is the biggest focus of the child’s interactions and interests and interferes with normative childhood interest and activities
  • The behavior is beyond the child’s developmental stage (e.g., a 3-year-old attempting to kiss an adult’s genitals)
  • The behavior involves children of different ages or abilities (e.g., a 12-year-old “playing doctor” with a 4-year-old)
  • The child knows excessive details about sexual activities
  • Involves touching animal genitalia
  • Threats, force or aggression are used
  • Involves inappropriate or harmful use of sexual body parts (e.g., inserting objects into the rectum or vagina)
  • Explicitly imitating sexual intercourse (when it’s beyond the child’s developmental stage)
  • Attempting intercourse (when it’s beyond the child’s developmental stage)
  • The behavior continues even after the child has been told to stop

Problematic sexual behavior provokes strong emotional reactions in the child such as anxiety or anger.

PSB does not usually happen in front of parents or other adults; it is usually discovered by accident or because another child tells. If a child denies the behavior, it is still important to keep an open mind about the possibility of PSB and take it seriously.

ItIcon blow horn’s important for your community to understand that sexual behavior problems are not limited to any particular group of children and occur in children across all age ranges, socioeconomic levels, cultures, living circumstances and family structures. Some children with sexual behavior problems have married parents, some have divorced parents, some have abuse histories and some have no history of abuse or other trauma.

A final note for your military community: The child is not a “predator” or a “pervert.” Children with sexual behavior problems are all children first. With proper treatment, they can learn to have respect for themselves and others, and to demonstrate healthy boundaries and behaviors.

To learn more about PSB in children including responding, causes, treatment, advocating and reporting, refer to the QuickSeries® guide: Problematic Sexual Behavior in Children

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