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Helping Families Understand and Respond to Children’s Sexual Behaviors

Community sexual assault programs may receive inquiries from parents, caregivers, and professionals about how to understand and respond to children's sexual behaviors. It may be helpful to think about children's sexual behaviors as existing on a continuum--some sexual behaviors are healthy and normal, some are problematic, and others may become abusive. The resources below can help parents and professionals identify which behaviors are developmentally appropriate, which behaviors may be problematic or abusive, and how to respond accordingly.

If there is concern that a child's sexual behaviors are problematic or abusive, parents may need to seek specialized assessment and possibly treatment with a therapist in your community.

  • While some children who display problematic sexual behavior have experienced sexual abuse, many have not. There are various reasons why a child might engage in problematic sexual behavior. As with any behavioral problem, it is an indicator that something might be happening in a child's life that requires attention.
  • Children with sexual behavior problems are not sex offenders. With the help and guidance of professionals, there are steps that parents and caregivers can take to reestablish appropriate boundaries, promote healthy sexual development, and prevent the behavior from escalating. Intervention and treatment for problematic and abusive sexual behavior in children differs significantly from the methods used with adult sex offenders.
  • Parental involvement is key to the healthy sexual development of children and to successful intervention and treatment when this aspect of development gets off track. The discovery of a child's problematic sexual behavior can be overwhelming for parents and caregivers. Help them to access resources and support systems so they can be the best support for their child.

In addition to locating, or in the absence of a therapist in your area who specializes in treatment of youth with problematic or abusive sexual behaviors, you can contact a treatment professional in your area listed in the Washington State Department of Health's Sex Offender Treatment Provider Directory to see if this is a service they provide(many of these providers work with youth who demonstrate inappropriate sexual behavior, but have not committed an offense). You can also request a list of provider referrals from the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.


Resources

Reviewed: August 27th, 2015