How to Address Child Sexual Behavior Problems

Talk to your child sexualized behavior.
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If your child is exhibiting sexual behavior, it’s appropriate to be concerned. But don’t panic. Develop a plan to address the behavior and determine whether you’ll need to seek professional help.

The first step is to develop an understanding of sexual development. While it may be normal for a 3-year-old to reach down their pants in front of other people, it’s not normal for a 13-year-old to be exhibiting the same behavior. Learn about age-appropriate sexual development to determine whether your child’s behaviors are normal.

Teach Appropriate Behavior

Young children don’t understand concepts about modesty and boundaries unless they are taught. Therefore, it’s important for caregivers to teach what behaviors are appropriate and what behaviors aren't OK.

Young children should be taught about their own bodies and issues surrounding safe touch. They should also be given information about how to respond if someone tries to touch them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. Provide them with information to help keep them safe.

Kids should be given information that is appropriate for their age group. For example, when a 5-year-old asks where babies come from, don’t give him all the details. Instead, answer with information that is appropriate to the child’s age.

Older children should be given more facts about sex and puberty as they mature. It’s important to develop an open line of communication to help children feel comfortable asking questions and seeking help when necessary.

Develop household rules that teach appropriate boundaries. For example, include a rule that says, “Knock on closed doors and wait for a response before entering,” or “One person in the bathroom at a time.”

Respond to Inappropriate Sexual Behavior

When inappropriate sexual behaviors occur, it’s important to respond in a non-shaming way. For example, if your 4-year-old reaches into their pants while you’re in the grocery store, remind them that it is inappropriate to do so in public. Teach them about the difference between private and public behavior.

Respond calmly and avoid using words that may shame your child, such as “nasty” or “naughty.” If your child feels shame, they may feel like they shouldn’t talk to you if they have questions about sex or their body.

Reasons for Sexualized Behavior

There are many possible reasons for inappropriate sexualized behavior. Sometimes kids exhibit sexualized behavior because they just don’t understand that it’s not appropriate. However, it can also be a sign of a more serious problem.

Children who are exposed to sexual content are more likely to exhibit sexualized behavior. Sometimes sexualized behaviors are a warning sign that a child may have been sexually abused.

Not all sexualized behavior results from sexual abuse. Children exposed to TV or movies that aren’t developmentally appropriate may begin to act out sexualized content. Kids can be exposed to graphic images online or while chatting on the internet as well.

Sometimes kids are exposed to sexual content by their peers. Older kids on the bus may tell inappropriate jokes or kids may overhear peers discussing graphic material they’ve witnessed.

Warning Signs of a Serious Problem

Sexualized behavior might signal a more serious problem or may require professional intervention. Potential warning signs include:

  • Sexualized behavior that is not developmentally appropriate: For example, a 12-year-old walking around the house naked is not developmentally appropriate.
  • Coercive sexualized behavior: It is never appropriate for sexualized behavior to be coercive, such as a child trying to convince another child to engage in sexual activity by making threats or using aggression.
  • Obsessive sexualized behavior: If a child focuses a lot of time and energy on sexualized behavior, such as being intent on trying to watch a sibling undress, it's a red flag.
  • Behavior that doesn’t respond to discipline: If you have appropriately addressed sexualized behavior but it continues to happen, it should be a cause for concern.
  • Sexualized behavior that interferes with a child’s life: If behavior interferes with friendships, such as a child not being allowed back at a friend’s house due to trying to pull the friend’s pants down repeatedly, it’s a problem. It’s also a problem if sexualized behavior interferes with school.
  • Sexualized behavior that shows mature knowledge of sex: It’s a red flag when children have a mature knowledge of sexual behavior and they act on that knowledge. For example, a 4-year-old shouldn’t be imitating adult sexual activity and an 8-year-old shouldn’t be attempting to access pornography.

Seek professional help if you’re concerned about your child’s sexualized behavior. Talk to your child’s doctor or a mental health professional to discuss your concerns and to determine if any other course of action may be necessary. A professional can conduct an assessment and make treatment recommendations to address sexual behavior problems.

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Article Sources
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  3. Vrolijk-Bosschaart TF, Brilleslijper-Kater SN, Benninga MA, Lindauer RJL, Teeuw AH. Clinical practice: Recognizing child sexual abuse—what makes it so difficult?. Eur J Pediatr. 2018;177(9):1343-1350. doi:10.1007/s00431-018-3193-z

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