Family dysfunction

Sex addiction in a parent means there is family dysfunction and sexual dysfunction in the environment of the child. This in turn impacts families and places children at risk for many problems including sex addiction as adults.

Researchers have reported that:

“Even when the children are not fully aware of the parent’s abnormal sexual behavior, they may eventually replicate it themselves.”

Sex addiction in a family does not automatically mean that the children will grow up to be addicts but it does increase the possibility of the child experiencing abuse or trauma in a number of ways.

What counts as abuse?

Children require nurturing, validation, love and support.  Anything less qualifies as to some extent abusive.  The following is a compilation of examples of child abuse that I think gives the idea of how broad the concept should be.

  • Forcing a child to kiss or hug other people
  • Criticizing child’s sexual development
  • Attacking a child’s thinking process
  • Making a child the butt of any joke
  • Screaming or shouting at a child
  • Imposing unfair punishments
  • Slapping or hitting a child
  • Not allowing a child privacy
  • Degrading or insulting a child
  • Forcing a child to keep secrets
  • Demanding perfection from a child
  • Blaming a child for family problems
  • Failure to provide supervision or security
  • Punishing a child’s normal sexual curiosity

Experiences of adults who grew up with a sex addict

A survey published in 1997 found that the vast majority of adult children of sex addicts reported the following problems:

As a child:

  • Given harmful information about sex instead of appropriate, accurate or useful information
  • Experienced shame of confusion about body, gender, and sexuality.
  • Sex tended to be viewed in extremes: all important and/or dirty, disgusting or naughty.
  • Disrespectful behaviors or remarks about gender and sexuality were common.
  • Lack of nourishing touch.

As an adult:

  • Experienced confusion, discomfort, or terror in the face of sexuality.
  • Had difficulties in establishing intimate relationships.
  • Experienced fear or shame when I acted in healthy sexual ways.
  • Misidentified the role of sex in relationships, using sex to avoid abandonment, control others or fill emptiness.
  • Confused sex with emotional intimacy.

The subtle messages and sexual violation

Some of the most common and most damaging experiences of a child growing up with a sex addict parent are not as obvious as physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

Some of the damaging dynamics that are present in families with a sex addict parent include:

An atmosphere of secrecy and duplicity about sex 

These families often have rigid, moralistic attitudes about sex along side hidden parental behaviors that contradict these attitudes.  This conveys the message that sexuality is shameful and should be kept compartmentalized.

Subtle sexualizing messages

These are likely to involve comments about the young person’s body or sexual development or attractiveness, inappropriate sexual humor etc.  The child is being condition to see him/herself in sexual terms.

Absence of a normal model of intimate relating 

This can take many forms but often parents are in conflict, do not show affection toward one another, or are disengaged and distracted by marital conflicts.

Witnessing inappropriate behavior on the part of the addict 

The child may come across pornography at an early age or may accidentally witness the addict engaged in some sexual behavior.  This is confusing and probably traumatic.

In addition to the risk of family disruption due to separation and divorce, one study found that cybersex addiction placed children at risk for:

  • Exposure to cyberporn and to objectification of women
  • Involvement in parental conflicts
  • Lack of attention because of the addict’s involvement with the computer and the partner’s preoccupation with the addict

Many adults with sex and relationship problems do not initially see their parents as having been abnormal.  Young children have nothing to compare their parents’ behavior to. And children instinctively want to bond with their parents and need to believe in them. Part of the recovery work for everyone is taking a more objective look at what it was like growing up and coming to understand the emotional effects of what we experienced.



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    Last reviewed: 2 Jan 2013

APA Reference
Hatch, L. (2013). Growing up around Sex Addiction: Impact on Children Part 2. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 31, 2015, from


Check Out Linda Hatch's books,
Relationships in Recovery & Living with a Sex Addict.

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