Sexual exploration and curiosity is a normal and important element of a child’s development. When parents and caregivers allow children to naturally and spontaneously explore their bodies, ask questions, and model the values they wish to instill, they foster the development of healthy, natural and positive sexuality. These children do not typically exhibit sexual problems since the behavior is playful, involves no element of coercion, and is easily amendable if parents ask the child to stop.
In her book Understanding Your Child’s Sexual Behavior: What’s Natural and Healthy, Toni Johnson Cavanaugh discusses a continuum of behaviors and identifies a continuum of problematic sexual behavior, or behavior that may be of concern and outside the scope of healthy inquiry. These categories of children, ordered by size from most to least, include those who are sexually reactive, children who engage in mutual sexual behavior with other children and those who molest.
Sexually Reactive Children: The group of children in this category includes children who act out sexually because they are sexually overwhelmed. These children experience confusion around sexuality, which then results in displaying of overt sexual behavior. These children do not intend to harm nor do they hide their behavior from others. Their sexual expression may be due overexposure to sexually related material that is not age appropriate or stemming from abuse or neglect.
Children Engaged in Mutual Sexual Behavior: Children who engage in mutual sexual behavior with other children are ones who feel isolated and lonely and find other children whom they perceive to experience similar feelings. These children typically feel abandoned and engage in mutual sexual behavior as a coping mechanism. Unlike the anxious sexually reactive kids, these children feel indifferent about the behavior and may have learned to view sex as a commodity.
Children Who Molest Other Children: This, the smallest group, is comprised of children who engage in sexual behavior with an intentional aim to harm another child. These children have learned to couple sexual behavior with anger and aggression and demonstrate poor impulse control in non-sexual behaviors as well. The molesting child uses threat and force and engages in this behavior frequently. These children typically come from environments with unmet needs of both children and adults, where children may have been abused and exploited.
All of these children need support around boundary setting to help them feel they can better self-regulate. While problematic, children express themselves through their behavior and need to first be understood to facilitate any behavioral change. Caregivers must remember not to blame the child for their behavior and emphasize it is the behavior that is unacceptable not the child. Behavioral change depends on a number of factors but a caring and consistent environment is one key element.
The causes of these sexual behaviors are varied. This topic will be further addressed in coming posts.
Posted by Asya Brodsky, LSW, CADC