Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Causes of Problematic Sexual Behavior in Children

The previous blog post was about problematic sexual behavior in children. Such behavior typically creates anxiety and concern for parents and caregivers. In order for the behavior to be adequately addressed, it must first be explored to determine potential underlying causes leading a child to act out in sexual ways.

When we refer to problematic sexual behavior, we are talking about behavior taking place either alone or with other children. The behavior does not seem lighthearted and curious, nor does it align with a child’s developmental level. This behavior is difficult to stop by parental request and leads to complaints by others. When children seem more preoccupied with sexual behaviors than other interests at their age or are sexually engaged with children with a significant age gap, there is cause for concern. More often than not, these children are engaging in sexual behavior because of disturbances in their environment. The following factors may be considered when assessing a child’s behavior:

Emotional state: In homes where children are exposed to physical or sexual violence and where sexual words may be used to hurt others, children learn to associate anger and aggression with sexuality. They may feel confused and act out sexually as a way to "space out" or relieve tension.

Family boundaries: In sexually open families where there is little privacy around changing clothes, rooms are unlocked and children are able to observe sexual activity, children are more likely to display sexual behavior.

Inappropriate interactions: Children who regularly engage with older siblings or adults who use sexual terminology or make sexual jokes are introduced to sexuality that is too advanced for them. Yet since it is used playfully and perceived as harmless, children will mimic what they hear and start doing the same.

Availability of sexual content: Children who have access to the television, internet or adult magazines can be easily exposed to sexualized media and pornographic material, which send mixed messages to children about sex. Children may learn that sexual behavior leads to attention or may be used as an exchange for goods, thinking it is ordinary to display their sexuality overtly.

Children learn through direct and indirect messages as well as observed behavior. Caregivers, who find their child’s behavior disturbing, should gather specific information about the behavior and consider the aforementioned factors to assess the context in which it occurs. Parents should remember to stay calm, to avoid shaming the child and to gather the most accurate information. Questions should be broad enough and open ended, so children recognize parents are coming from a place of concern but also one of care and support.

Posted by Asya Brodsky, LPC, CADC

Source: Johnson, T. C. (1999). Understanding Your Child’s Sexual Behavior: What’s Natural and Healthy. Oakland: New Harbinger.