Children with sexual behavior problems are children 12 years and under who demonstrate developmentally inappropriate or aggressive sexual behavior.Sexual exploration and play are a natural part of childhood sexual development, and help children not only to learn about their own bodies, but about the social and cultural rules that govern sexual behavior. There are many possible reasons why children may show sexual behaviors that are inappropriate or unexpected for their age. In general, children’s sexual behavior problems are rarely about sexual pleasure. In fact, these behaviors are much more likely to be related to anxiety, traumatic experiences, curiosity, poor impulse control, or other factors. Some of the factors that have been linked to the development of sexual behavior problems include:

  • Exposure to traumatic experiences, such as abuse, natural disasters, or accidents

  • Exposure to violence in the home

  • Excessive exposure to adult sexual activity or nudity in the home (including media exposure through television or the Internet)

  • Inadequate rules about modesty or privacy in the home

  • Inadequate supervision in the home, often as a result of parental factors such as depression, substance abuse, or frequent absences due to work

Children with Sexual Behavior Problems: Facts and Myths


Sexual acts between children are not harmful

Sexual acts between children can be significantly harmful. Some sexual play between young children close in age, such as playing doctor or looking at private parts, is not considered to be harmful. However, some children display intrusive, aggressive, or coercive sexual behaviors which are potentially harmful to the other children involved.


Children who have been sexually abused later act out sexually with other children

Most children who have been sexually abused do not have sexual behavior problems. Children who have been sexually abused have been found to exhibit more frequent and intrusive sexual behaviors than children with no history of sexual abuse. However, research suggests that most children who have been sexually abused do not have sexual behavior problems.


Children with sexual behavior problems have been sexually abused

Many children with sexual behavior problems have not been sexually abused. Research on children with sexual behavior problems has shown that highly inappropriate or aggressive sexual behavior is not always an indicator that a child has been sexually abused. In separate groups of children with sexual behavior problems, between 4% and 62% have no known history of sexual abuse. It appears that sexual behavior problems in children have multiple origins. Family sexuality patterns, exposure to sexual material, other non-sexual behavior problems, exposure to family violence, and physical abuse can be important contributors to childhood sexual behavior problems.


All sexual behavior between children is normal, acceptable play

Some sexual behavior between children is not appropriate. Sexual behavior between children is considered problematic when the sexual behavior: a) occurs at a high frequency; b) interferes with child’s social or cognitive development; c) occurs with coercion, intimidation, or force; d) is associated with emotional distress; e) occurs between children of significantly different ages and/or developmental abilities; or f) repeatedly reoccurs in secrecy after intervention by caregivers.


Children with sexual behavior problems should be placed in specialized inpatient or residential treatment facilities

Outpatient treatment can be successful for most children with sexual behavior problems. Most children can be successfully treated and managed on an outpatient basis while living at home. Inpatient treatment should be reserved for unusually severe and serious cases, such as a child with other psychiatric disorders and/or highly aggressive sexual behavior which recurs despite appropriate outpatient treatment and close supervision.


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