Understanding Children’s Sexual Behaviors

What’s Natural and Healthy?
Natural and healthy sexual exploration during childhood is an information gathering process wherein children explore each other’s bodies, by looking and touching, as well as explore gender roles and behaviors.
Most children involved in natural and expected sex play are:

similar age, size and developmental status.

participate on a voluntary basis.

have an ongoing mutually enjoyable play and/or school friendship.
Natural and healthy sexual behaviors are:

limited in type and frequency.

are balanced by curiosity about other aspects of his or her life.

may result in embarrassment but do not usually leave children with deep feelings of anger, shame, fear, or anxiety.
Problematic Sexual Behavior in ChildrenThe following characteristics can be used to assess whether a child is engaging in sexual behaviors which may require a professional evaluation.

The children engaged in the sexual behaviors do not have an ongoing mutual play relationship.

The children are of different ages or developmental levels.

Sexual behaviors are out of balance with other aspects of the child’s interests.

Children seem to have too much knowledge about sexuality and behave in ways more consistent with adult sexual expression.

Sexual behaviors are significantly different than those of other same-age children.

Sexual behaviors continue in spite of consistent and clear requests to stop.

Children’s sexual behaviors are eliciting complaints from other children and/or adversely affecting other children.

Children’s sexual behaviors are directed at adults who feel uncomfortable receiving them.

Children (four years and older) who do not understand their rights or the rights of others in relation to sexual contact.

Sexual behaviors progress in frequency, intensity or intrusiveness over time.

Fear, anxiety, deep shame, or intense guilt are associated with the sexual behaviors.

Children who engage in extensive, persistent mutually agreed upon adult-type sexual behaviors with other children.

Children who manually stimulate or have oral or genital contact with animals.

Children sexualize nonsexual things, or interactions with others, or relationships.

Sexual behaviors which cause physical or emotional pain or discomfort to self or others.

Children who use sex to hurt others.

When verbal and/or physical expressions of anger precede, follow or accompany the sexual behavior.

Children who use distorted logic to justify their sexual actions.

When coercion, force, bribery, manipulation, or threats are associated with sexual behaviors.
Want to know what’s illegal sexual behavior for teenagers? Check out the North Dakota Attorney General’s publication What Teenagers Need to Know About Sex Offenses. [Website]
Has my child been sexually abused?
It is a natural inclination to think that a child has been sexually abused if he or she engages in problematic sexual behaviors. In fact, less than half of the children who have been sexually abused engage in problematic sexual behaviors. (Kendall-Tackett, Williams et al. 1993) If you are concerned that your child may have been abused, call county social services in the county where you reside.
Do victims become perpetrators?
While there is a popular belief that child victims become children who molest other children, this is UNTRUE in the vast majority of cases. Only a small percentage of victims molest other children.
How serious is it if my child is engaging in problematic sexual behavior?
The vast majority of children’s sexual behavior is healthy and normal. Yet some children do have sexual behavior problems. While some of the children have been physically, sexually and emotionally abused, others have been overexposed to sex which has overwhelmed and confused them. Children who have sexual behavior problems can be divided into three groups.

Sexually-reactive” children engage in self stimulating behaviors and also engage in sexual behaviors with other children and, sometimes, adults. Generally, this type of sexual behavior is in response to things which go on around them or feelings which reawaken memories which are traumatic, painful, overly stimulating or of which they can’t make sense. The child may respond directly by masturbating or engaging in other sexual behaviors alone or with children or adults. This type of sexual behavior is often not within the full conscious control of the child. These children do not coerce others into sexual behaviors but act out their confusion on them.

 “Children who engage in extensive mutual sexual behaviors” are often distrustful, chronically hurt and abandoned by adults and relate best to other children. In the absence of close, supportive relationships to adults, the sexual behaviors become a way of making a connection to other children. They use sex as a way to cope with their feelings of hurt, sadness, anxiety, and often despair. These children do not coerce other children into sexual behaviors but find other similarly lonely children who will engage with them. Almost all of these children have been sexually and emotionally abused and look to other children to help emotionally save them.

Children who molest” exhibit frequent and pervasive sexual behaviors. A growing pattern of sexual behavior problems is evident in their histories. Intense sexual confusion is a hall-mark of their thinking and behavior. Sexuality and aggression are closely linked in the thoughts and actions of these children. Unless the other child is too young to understand, children who molest use some type of coercion to gain their participation in the sexual behavior. Bribery, trickery, manipulation or emotional or physical coercion are generally the forms of coercion used. Physical force is neither commonplace nor necessary as the children’s victims are selected due to special vulnerabilities, including developmental delays, social isolation and emotional neediness. These children generally have problems in all areas of their lives.
Getting Help
After reading the above material you may have decided that there are no problems for the child based on the type of sexual behaviors in which he or she is engaging. However if you are worried, you can call your family pediatrician or  a qualified mental health professional who is familiar with child sexuality or child abuse and ask for an evaluation.
Source: Understanding Children’s Sexual Behaviors: What’s Natural and Healthy by Toni Cavanagh Johnson, Ph.D.

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