This website is written for you—parents and caregivers who have learned their child has a problematic sexual behavior and who want to understand and help change that behavior.
At this point, and over the next several months, the most important thing you can do is help your child as he or she faces the challenge of developing new, healthier behaviors.
Having a child who acts out sexually is terribly stressful for any parent. Our children are flooded with sexual messages from the media (television, movies, music videos, lyrics of songs, and the Internet). Yet, sex remains a topic that can be embarrassing and hard for parents to discuss, particularly with their own children. Parenting classes and books rarely address sexual behaviors in children. So when inappropriate sexual behavior by a child is discovered, families often respond to the news with shock. They frequently lack information and adequate support to deal with the events surrounding identified problems with their child’s sexual behavior.
This information is specifically designed to help parents and other caregivers of children (ages 3 to 12) who have problematic sexual behaviors. You may be the parent or a family member of a child who has acted out in a sexual manner. You also may be a friend or professional who wants to provide support. This information is designed to address many of the questions caregivers have about sexual behavior in children. Our goal is to help you develop a plan of action and to offer you hope for the future, for both you and your child.
Parents often feel isolated and ashamed after discovering that their child has a problematic sexual behavior. If you find yourself in this place, it is important for you to know that you are not alone. It can be helpful to learn from other families in similar circumstances.
Four Families’ Stories
Below are four examples of sexual behaviors in children and some of the questions and concerns that can arise for the parents and other family members as a result.
Mr. and Mrs. Cornelison’s four sons ranged in age from 5 to 10 years old. All the boys loved sports. Every evening and weekend was filled with practices, games, and other activities. One Saturday morning, Mrs. Cornelison told her sons to get in their uniforms for their games. As the children dressed, it was unusually quiet in the bedroom, so Mrs. Cornelison went to see what was happening. She found two of her sons, ages 7 and 9, undressed and touching each other’s private parts. She was shocked. She told her husband what she saw. Mr. Cornelison had the boys get dressed, and he talked to each of them separately. The boys seemed embarrassed. They reported that they were just getting dressed and were wondering what it would be like to touch each other.
The Cornelisons wondered if this behavior was normal or something of concern. If it was normal, should they just ignore it? What did this discovery mean about their boys and about their own parenting? What did this mean about how the boys would be when they grew up? Did this mean that their sons were gay?
What is typical sexual behavior?
What is a Problematic Sexual Behavior?
Mr. McFarland will never forget the night his neighbor called about his 10-year-old son, Ryan. Ryan had been at the neighbor’s house playing with his friends, ages 9 and 6. The boys all got along well and played together often. When the neighbor called she sounded in a panic. She said that she had walked into the boys’ bedroom, and had found them all half naked, with Ryan humping her 6-year-old son, Benjamin. In the next few months there were police investigations, child protective services involvement, and various other services that had been recommended by the authorities. At first, Mr. McFarland didn’t or couldn’t believe it had happened. He thought the neighbor had misinterpreted how the boys were playing. Then, over time, he accepted that the sexual behaviors had really occurred.
Many questions arose for Mr. McFarland throughout this process. For example, where had Ryan learned this behavior? Had Ryan himself been sexually abused? Was he going to grow up to be a pedophile? What rights would the family have in the investigation process? What kinds of treatment could help Ryan?
Ms. Blackwood is worried about her grandchildren, Summer, age 7, and Darren, age 5. Their father sexually abused them a year ago. Summer and Darren were sent to live with Ms. Blackwood after her daughter (the children’s mother) left to be with her husband. Since being in her home, her grandchildren seem to have no boundaries. No one is a stranger to them. They try to hug or kiss everyone. Summer especially likes to talk with men, even at the grocery store. Recently, Ms. Blackwood found Summer with her mouth on Darren’s privates while they were taking a bath together. Ms. Blackwood didn’t know what to do; she just froze watching them. After the initial state of shock, she told the children that they had better stop that. Summer wasn’t upset about the behavior or about how it might impact Darren. Ms. Blackwood is afraid that Summer is becoming a “psychopath” and has no concern for others. At the same time, Ms. Blackwood doesn’t want to punish Summer too harshly because of the past sexual abuse and loss of their mother. Ms. Blackwood worries that Summer will get really upset if she is punished and may be hurt by it.
Ms. Blackwood is unsure what to do. What should she do about the bathroom incident? What type of discipline is appropriate, if any? This situation is terribly stressful for Ms. Blackwood, but she doesn’t think she can talk with anyone about what has happened. Who can she get help from when she feels all alone?
Mr. and Mrs. Kastner adopted Jerry, age 10, and Destiny, age 5, two years ago. Jerry and Destiny had been removed from their biological parents’ home due to neglect and physical abuse. Jerry had been more damaged by the past experiences than his younger sister. Over the time with the Kastners, Jerry has revealed that his biological parents and other adults often had fistfights and even sometimes hit Jerry. The parents also frequently got drunk or used drugs and left Jerry and Destiny to fend for themselves. While Destiny has adjusted well to the Kastner home, Jerry has had difficulties following rules. He tends to be angry at home and at school. He struggles with his schoolwork, and now is close to failing. Recently, a school administrator called and reported that Jerry and two other boys had held down a younger female student. When a teacher found the students, Jerry had his pants down and was lying on top of the girl. Jerry was suspended from school, and now the police have become involved. The psychologist who evaluated Jerry diagnosed him with a condition called Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Jerry was also found to have reading and math learning disabilities. She recommended that the family receive therapy and that Jerry be placed on a special education plan designed just for him, so that his learning and behavior problems could be addressed.
The Kastners are unsure what they can expect from therapy. They wonder if therapy can actually help Jerry and, if so, what type would be best? They wonder if they should be worried about Jerry doing something to Destiny. They care about Jerry but also are offended by his behavior. They want to know how to help themselves deal with their own negative reactions.
When a parent has a child who demonstrates problematic sexual behavior, many questions arise such as ones noted in these case examples. The four examples are fictional and are not intended to represent a specific people. Rather these examples illustrate the range of families impacted by problematic sexual behavior of youth. In the following webpages, these families’ questions are addressed as well as other questions parents and caregivers may have.
In today’s world, children are raised by multiple and varied caregivers, including not only biological caregivers, but also adoptive parents, stepparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings, and foster parents. For simplicity’s sake, we will use the terms “parents” and “caregivers” interchangeably throughout this website to mean those adults who are responsible for the care, nurturing, guidance, and raising of children.