Problematic Behaviors

Range of Sexually Inappropriate Behaviors in Children

(Adapted from “Understanding Children’s Sexual Behaviors,” by Toni Cavanagh Johnson, PhD.)

Did you know that 7-41% of all sexually abused children display sexually inappropriate behaviors? Unlike adult sexual offenders, children with problematic sexual behaviors are categorized in three groups that differ in frequency, severity, behavior, reasoning and treatment of their victims/other children. These categories are:

  • Sexually reactive children
  • Children who engage in widespread mutual sexual behavior
  • Children who molest other children

Children who are sexually reactive often have experienced complex or damaging feelings that come from witnessing or experiencing abuse or trauma. These children act out frequently and make sure their behavior is done in the view of adults. The sexual behavior is either self-directed or directed at others including adults. When the sexually reactive child involves other children, it is done without pressure or force and if a child says “no” the problematic child will move on to a different child. Also, there is often a direct connection between an emotional trigger for the child and the appearance of the sexual behavior. This sexually reactive behavior is motivated by the child’s history of built up confusion, fear and anxiety about sex. Acting out is their attempt to understand and cope with these uncomfortable emotions. Sexually reactive children represent the largest group of youth displaying sexual behavior problems.

The children who engage in extensive mutual sexual behavior group is the second largest category of children with problematic sexual behaviors. Unlike the last group, these children use persuasion to achieve their desire with willing partners but they do not go so far to coerce the other children. Sexual behaviors of children in this category are frequent and include a wide range of adult sexual behaviors. Children in this group are usually missing close, sympathetic relationships from adults. Some may have been regularly hurt and/or abandoned by their parents/guardians causing mistrust towards adults. As a way to cope with feelings of neglect, they find other children to connect with, to decrease their sense of isolation and to feel safe. Children who are engaging in extensive mutual sexual behavior do not see their actions as wrong or harmful and often have difficulty stopping. Since they seek out willing partners with similar lack of adult attachment, there is often an agreement between the children to actively hide their behavior from parents/guardians.

The last and smallest group of children with problematic sexual behaviors are the ones who molest. Children, who molest other children, have intense sexual confusion that is evident in their thinking and behavior. Children in this category display frequent and persistent sexual actions towards others. In general children in this group have generalized behavior problems and tend to display impulsive and aggressive tendencies. Although physical force is uncommon for children who molest, they do rely on pressure such as bribery, trickery, manipulation and emotional or physical bullying to gain participation from their victims. When selecting victims, children who molest look for children all ages that are perceived to be: weak, are mentally challenged/disabled, socially isolated, or have emotional neediness.  Once discovered by adults, children who molest are in need of specialized help for many reasons.

A word about Help

Caregivers worry that children who display sexually problematic behaviors will be condemned to a life labeled as a sex offender. However, if properly addressed, these behaviors can be stopped. How do we know this? Research shows that children with sexually problematic behaviors generally differ from adult sexual offenders in one crucial way; they are not sexually aroused. Instead, many children with these behaviors have observed too much adult sexuality or may have been molested themselves. In other words, they are “re-playing” learned behaviors that can be unlearned with therapy and intervention. For more information read coping with children who have sexual behavior problems or Tips for Reducing Problematic Sexual Behaviors.  The important thing is to remain calm and seek help.