It’s hard to believe that a young child or adolescent would engage in sexually inappropriate behaviors that can ultimately affect their reputation, psychological and emotional well-being, and ultimate life course. As adults, we are more than ready to fully embrace young people as curious and innocent. Sadly, we are forced to take another look at a youth who is engaging in sexually maladaptive behaviors such as peeping, inappropriate touching, frequent self-stimulation in public or open spaces, watching porn, or sexually violating their peers. Most of these behaviors are the result of a youth being abused, witnessing a traumatic experience, or lack of supervision in the home. As a therapist, I have seen my fair share of sexually inappropriate behaviors in more children and adolescents than I would like to see. As a result, this article will discuss what we call sexually maladaptive behaviors (SMB’s) among youth and the causes of these behaviors.
When I first started as a child and adolescent therapist some odd years ago, the last thing I thought was that I would be getting a referral for services from another mental health agency seeking help for sexually maladaptive behaviors for young people under the age of 14. My first case involved a 6-year-old boy who was engaging in self-stimulation throughout the day, peeping on the adults in the home, and watching porn. We all understand that youngsters are naturally curious about the reproductive system and sexually related topics. It is quite normal for young children to explore their bodies, ask questions, or be curious about the human body. But it is not normal for a child or adolescent to watch porn 24/7, seek constant sexual stimulation, or pressure their peers to gratify them in some way. In today’s world, pre-teens are becoming more privy to sexual topics and often know more than the adults in their lives. But we must keep in mind that sexually maladaptive behavior is typically viewed as a preoccupation with the topic and it places self or others in harm’s way. Children and adolescents with problematic sexual behavior often do not stop the behavior when told, and their knowledge is clearly beyond their developmental level.
According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, sexually maladaptive behaviors frequently involve other children, including younger children, siblings, or friends. The behavior interferes with typical childhood interests and activities. Children with sexually maladaptive behaviors almost always exhibit other behavioral problems such as impulsivity and inattentiveness, oppositional behaviors or conduct problems (stealing, lying, cheating, etc), difficulty in following rules and respecting boundaries, and emotional difficulties. While speaking with family members who are afraid their child will grow into an adult offender or sexual perpetrator, I always make it known from the start that children and adolescents don’t just act out because they can. There is almost always a reason for the behavior and those reasons typically include biology/genes/inheritance, environmental/social influence, or both. Even more, these youngsters also may have been traumatized in some fashion and are acting out sexually.
It’s important that families understand the emotional and psychological implications of sexually inappropriate behaviors by kids and teens. Some kids and teens could be acting out what they have witnessed in their own homes – on TV, online, or with their parents or guardians. Other kids are acting out the abuse they have experienced or even witnessed. This is why it is very important that children and adolescents who are exhibiting sexually inappropriate behaviors see a therapist so that they can explore the reasons for their behaviors. I must also add that some sexually inappropriate behaviors have no explanation. In cases such as these, specialized treatment should be pursued.
For many parents, it is very difficult to acknowledge sexually maladaptive behaviors (SMB) in their children. It is even more difficult for parents to spot SMB’s in a child. As a result, I have listed six signs that a child needs treatment:
- Lack of boundaries and respect for the privacy of others: Children who are very “touchy-feely” with strangers, younger children, or other children their age should be taught about appropriate boundaries. Some children are friendly, while other children struggle with developmental disorders that prevent them from understanding appropriate social boundaries (for example, Autism Spectrum Disorders or reactive attachment disorder). As difficult as it is to believe, some children with sexually maladaptive behaviors will gravitate toward females and attempt to touch them inappropriately (touching breasts or looking) and/or other children of the opposite sex. Playing “doctor” or “dress up” are also activities that children with sexually maladaptive behaviors may engage in.
- Aggressive behavior: Kids who have been labeled juvenile delinquents and who struggle with aggressive behavior may also struggle with sexually inappropriate behaviors. Males with aggressive behaviors (physical and verbal) may exhibit predatory behaviors such as “grooming” and ultimately rape.
- Being the victim of sexual abuse or being exposed to it: Some children with histories of sexual abuse or with a history of having witnessed sexual abuse of someone close to them may also struggle with sexually inappropriate behaviors. Some kids become what we call “promiscuous” or search for love with multiple partners. These same kids may also self-stimulate, sell their bodies, or engage in other sexually inappropriate behaviors. Kids who have been victims of sexual abuse or have witnessed sexual abuse are most likely traumatized. They would benefit from therapy to explore behaviors that are unhealthy for them.
- Watching porn or attempting to view explicit material: Children who are interested in adult conversations about sex and intimacy and who are interested in searching for porn or similar materials online should be talked to. If talking isn’t enough, the child should be placed in therapy. A child who is interested in porn or similar materials could be exhibiting behavior that will never subside, and eventually get worse.
- Being inappropriately exposed to parental sexual behavior: It is a given that most kids will learn about sexual intimacy from their parents. For some kids, this interest is furthered by hearing peers talk about their experiences of overhearing or walking in on their parents. Even more, these kids might begin to explore the issue further by Googling things, talking to peers, or watching porn. Sometimes a mature conversation about sexual intimacy and love is enough to put a stop to a child’s exploration and questions on the topic. However, there are some families that may require professional intervention due to a child’s inability to cope.
- Frequent self-stimulation: Exploration of bodily parts is a natural part of growing up. Some kids enjoy the pleasurable feeling of self-stimulation when stressed, depressed, angry, or overwhelmed. These kids are seeking an outlet and self-stimulation is a temporary escape. These kids are struggling with emotions they are internalizing and need to learn more positive coping skills (e.g., deep breathing, sports, music, art, etc). Kids who frequently self-stimulate may need both psychological and medical (for possible health conditions) attention.
When the above behaviors are observed, it is important to talk to the child about the inappropriateness of these behaviors and seek to incorporate safety precautions within the home to reinforce appropriate boundaries. For example, a family that I once worked with had a child who exhibited inappropriate sexual behaviors and there were siblings in the home. The family had someone supervise the child at all times (primarily after school), discussed the child’s poor boundaries with teachers in the child’s school, and put cameras in the home to monitor behavior. For families that might find putting cameras in the home an act they would rather avoid, they should look to incorporate behavior modification techniques that help the child develop appropriate behaviors. They should seek out a therapist who can guide them.
It is also important to know when it is time to consider out-of-home treatment options. To learn more about these options, visit my personal website: AnchoredinKnowledge.com.
As always, I wish you well
John Hopkins University. Knowing when to seek treatment. John Hopkins Medicine. Retrieved October 25, 2015, from http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/healthlibrary/conditions/mental_health_disorders/knowing_when_to_seek_treatment_85,P00769/.
Southwood Psychiatric Hospital. Sexually maladaptive signs and symptoms. Behavioral Treatment. Retrieved October 25, 2015, from http://www.southwoodhospital.com/behavioral/sexually-maladaptive/signs-effects-symptoms.
Understanding and coping with sexual behavior problems in children. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Retrieved October 25, 2015, from http://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/assets/pdfs/sexualbehaviorproblems.pdf.