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Children & Problematic Sexual Behaviors

Elizabeth (Bitsy) Taylor, LCSW, has worked as a therapist for 16 years, coming to Children’s Center in 2005. Bitsy was instrumental in starting, and now manages, the Children’s Center Therapy Program, and also oversees the work of the Healthy Boundaries and Behaviors team.

Guest post by: Bitsy Taylor, Children’s Center Therapy Program Manager

When parents/caregivers learn that their young child has engaged in behaviors that involves touching or looking at another child’s private parts, they often have one of two responses: to panic or to write the behaviors off as normal and exploratory. Sometimes, it is easy to forget that like the rest of a child’s development, sexual development begins when we are born and continues throughout our childhood and teen years. Retrospective research has shown that experiencing sexual play at least once during childhood is common. But what is the difference between touching that is natural and healthy exploration versus behaviors that are more concerning and might require support from a professional?

The first thing to note, is that the answer to this question is not always a simple black and white answer. When thinking of kids and their sexual behavior, it is better to think of it on a spectrum.

On one end we have attributes that make us less concerned about their behavior: the behavior takes place between children who regularly interact with one another and have a positive relationship; the behaviors develop out of play; children are of the same age, size and developmental status; the activity is agreed upon by both children; the feelings of the children are light-hearted and the behaviors are spontaneous; the behaviors diminish when adults intervene in a supportive and nurturing manner.

On the other end are the attributes that indicate that seeking support from a trained professional would be beneficial: children are of different ages (3 years or greater gap), sizes or developmental level; behaviors happen often and involve force or coercion; the behaviors cause harm or emotional distress; the behaviors do not decrease with adult intervention; anything that involves penetration; any behavior that is typically considered natural and healthy is problematic if done compulsively or frequently.

When children under the age of 12 engage in concerning behaviors that involve private parts, it is called Problematic Sexual Behaviors. National Children’s Alliance and the National Center for the Sexual Behavior of Youth have lots of resources on their websites for parents/caregivers who are concerned about their child’s sexual behaviors. These behaviors respond well to evidence-based therapy interventions and research indicates that a majority of these children should be treated with outpatient services.

If you discover children engaging in sexual play, calmly guide them to a new activity and increase supervision. Then have conversations with all the children involved about the Body Safety Rules and teach them how to have safe boundaries with their friends. Even if it is typical play, it is important that we, as parents/caregivers intervene to teach children about healthy boundaries with peers.

If you have concerns about if your child’s play was developmentally typical or concerning, do not hesitate to reach out to Children’s Center (503-655-7725) and ask to speak to someone in the Healthy Boundaries and Behaviors program. They can answer questions and provide additional information and resources on children and their sexual behaviors.

– Bitsy

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