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Common Misconceptions Regarding Sexual Behaviors in Children

By Christine Bowlby, LMHP

Most situations that involve sexual behaviors in young children do not require the intervention of child protective services. However, there are behaviors that should be considered a “red flag” and warrant a closer look. With this being said, how do we know what's 'normal'? Is it true that children who have been sexually abused turn out to be adult sex offenders? Should children with sexual problematic behaviors attend public school? To shed some light on these questions, below are 11 of the most common misconceptions regarding sexual behaviors in youth.

All sexual behavior between children is normal, acceptable play.
Not all sexual behaviors between children are natural and healthy. What would be considered inappropriate? Is there more than a two year age difference between the children? Was force and/or coercion used? If the children are close in age, is there a significant difference in their cognitive abilities? Do these behaviors continue after multiple interventions? Sometimes it’s hard to know, so checking with at least two other adults who you respect might help you decide.

Sexual acts between children are not harmful.
When children "play doctor" they are curious and want to look at private parts with their friends of similar age, it is usually seen as natural and healthy sexual development. Even though this can be natural, it is important for adults to intervene, monitor and set appropriate boundaries and supervision so that the behavior does not progress. If threatening or intrusive behaviors are involved, this can be very harmful for the victim and professional help should be sought.

Children with Sexual Behavioral Problems have been sexually abused.
This is not always true. Yes, some children with sexual behaviors have been sexually abused. But there are also children with sexual behaviors that have never been sexually abused. One researcher, Toni Cavanaugh Johnson, Ph.D, found that exposure to domestic violence was the primary cause of sexual behaviors in children.

Children who have been sexually abused, later act out sexually with other children.
This is another common misconception as well. Just because a child has been sexually abused, does not mean that he/she will go on to abuse others; in fact, most do not.

Girls rarely have sexual behavioral problems.
This statement is false, but believed by many. At the younger ages, males and females are equally represented. As age increased, there was a tendency for males to outnumber females. Research has shown that as girls reach puberty and later, inappropriate? sexual occurrences are less common.

Children with Sexual Behavior Problems should not live in a home with other children.
Some children with sexual behavioral problems can live in a home with other children. Each case should be viewed on an individual basis. For example, are there involved caregivers that will be able to follow a supervision plan to keep everyone safe?

Children with Sexual Behavior Problems should be placed in specialized inpatient or residential treatment facilities.
Some children may benefit from a higher level of care, but this is not the norm. This type of treatment may occur if therapy was not effective on an outpatient basis.

Children with Sexual Behavior Problems should not attend public schools.
Most children with Sexual Behavior Problems can attend public school. Sometimes a school supervision plan may be needed. If this is the case, then please have the child's therapist and designated school officials assist with this. Notice 'most' children should be able to attend. However, there may be circumstances when a child will need an alternative educational setting due to risking the safety of the other students.

Without long-term intensive therapy, children with Sexual Behavior Problems will continue to have sexual behavioral problems.
The National Center on Sexual Behavior of Youth, reports "treatment outcome research has demonstrated that most children show significantly lower sexual behavior problems after short-term outpatient treatment (12-32 weeks). The recidivism rates for children 6-12 were approximately 15% two years after treatment".

Punishing a child for this behavior, such as taking away privileges or adding chores will be the most effective in preventing future problems.
Punishing a child for these behaviors or adding chores to their 'to do list', will not curtail these sexual problematic behaviors. If your child has continued with these behaviors in secrecy, in spite of the caregiver's intervention, professional help should be sought.

Children with Sexual Behavior Problems grow up to be adult sex offenders.
Most children with sexual behaviors do not grow up to be adult sex offenders. NCSBY reports, "most adult sexual offenders do not report a childhood onset for their behavior".

Please contact Child Protective Services at 1-800-820-5437 if you believe a child is in danger.

"It is not enough to shed tears for those who suffer the tragedy of sexual abuse, nor will much be accomplished nurturing hatred and devising punishments for those who sexually abuse. Only by sharing knowledge, providing training, exchanging ideas, and challenging traditional beliefs and biases can we respond effectively to sexual victimization." — Jan Hindman