It’s not easy to think about children having healthy sexual behaviors. This may be especially true for those of us who work with victims of sexual abuse.
When these children begin demonstrating sexual behaviors or curiosity it is often assumed they are acting out their traumas. However, there is a difference between developmentally appropriate and inappropriate sexual behaviors.
As advocates for child welfare, it is necessary to know how to distinguish among different sexual behaviors, as well as how to intervene if a child’s sexual behaviors are considered problematic.
Beginning in the toddler years, children develop a curiosity about the body and its different parts. When a child asks questions about specific body parts, it is important to provide them with the correct anatomical names. This way, should the child ever need to communicate something important about their “private” parts, they will have the necessary language.
As children move into school age (6-12) they will start to notice the biological arousal that comes from self-stimulation. Young children are not able to distinguish between the good feelings that come from self-stimulation and the kind that come from kicking a soccer ball down the field. As caregivers, it is important to teach children when these behaviors are appropriate (i.e. in private) while never blaming or shaming the child for what is developmentally expected.
As the child grows they may want to explore their friends’ bodies. Again, this development in curiosity is expected, but it is important for the child to now learn how to respect personal space and boundaries. Let the child know that everyone has a right to privacy and the importance of respecting the word “no.”
Help the child learn to say “no” when they want their privacy respected as well. Role playing can be an age-appropriate way to teach the child how to firmly and confidently say “no” when they do not want to be touched in a certain way or by a certain person.
During this phase it is important to allow the child to determine who they want to touch and be touched by. It is common to encourage children to hug other adults such as grandparents. However, letting the child decide who they want to touch helps reinforce that they are in charge of their own bodies and have a right to personal space.
Moving into adolescence, it is natural for children to increasingly experiment with same-age peers. While the sexual behaviors among today’s youth are likely more mature than they should be, it does not indicate problematic behavior or intentions. Teens are likely mimicking what they’ve seen from the vast and endless amount of Internet resources.
As the caregiver, help the child learn to implement and navigate boundaries that will ensure their personal space is respected. Answering questions about relationships and sex will give teens the information and self-empowerment they need to make healthy decisions and say “no” when desired.
Unexpected or age-inappropriate sexual behaviors do not necessarily indicate a child is being abused or is sexually aggressive. In order to determine if the behaviors are problematic they must be explored further. Professional help may be warranted if a child continues to engage in inappropriate behaviors such as public self-stimulation or violating the boundaries of others.
Denying the impact of sexually inappropriate behaviors on others or insisting on physical contact when it is clear the other person is uncomfortable could be signs of problematic sexual behavior. Again, professional help is warranted if a child is resistant to establishing, maintaining and respecting personal boundaries around sexual behavior.
If a child is being sexually violated, the warning signs are similar throughout all developmental stages. The use of sexually explicit language or discussion of specific sexual acts among prepubescent children is considered developmentally inappropriate and should be explored further.
If the aggressor is a same-age peer, the abused child will likely become upset or nervous if they have to be alone with the abusing child. Personality shifts such as a noticeable change in regular mood, resistance to normal routines like bath time, sleep problems and/or reversal to behaviors like bedwetting may be indicative of abuse and should be assessed by a mental health professional.
Children of all ages may have a difficult time reporting abuse. It is not uncommon for a child to feel they are to blame or that they will get in trouble if they tell the truth. This is why establishing open and honest communication about sex early in childhood is important. The child needs to know they have adults in their life who will not judge or blame them for being the victim of sexual abuse.
Talking about sex with kids is almost never easy, but in the end open and honest communication is what keeps them safe, well-informed and armed with the knowledge that they are in charge of their bodies.
Jill Dermyer, Psy.D., is a postdoctoral fellow of clinical psychology. She has a private therapy practice in Atlanta where she specializes in working with adults and adolescents who have experienced sexual or religious-based traumas, or are living with chronic illness.