Why Did This Happen?

Most parents want to know why this happened. Why did their teen sexually harm someone else? But it’s often difficult, if not impossible, to determine exactly why. There is almost never a single reason why a teen engages in illegal sexual behavior. More often such behavior is the result of many factors. Following are the most common reasons.

Curiosity / Experimentation

Most adolescents are curious about sex. Some of them will take advantage of an opportunity to find out more—with younger children. They know it’s wrong. They know they shouldn’t do it. They know they’ll get in trouble if they get caught. What they usually don’t know is that the behavior is a very serious crime.  The police may charge them, and even arrest them, perhaps at school, and take them into custody and that they may be held in detention and charged as a delinquent, or in some cases, with an adult crime.  They also may not know that there are additional legal and other consequences for such behaviors can be devastating to them, the person they offended, as well as their families and friends.

Impulsivity / Immaturity

Research tells us that all teenagers are immature and impulsive to some degree. But some teenagers are more immature and more impulsive than others. Some may be diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and have poor judgment about relationships and actions. The ADHD does not directly “cause” problematic sexual behavior, but contributes.  Youth with impulsive behavior and poor decision-making skills are more likely to break rules (including rules about sexual behaviors) in risky situations. 

(It is important to note that most youth with ADHD do not have problematic sexual behavior.) 

Some teens have not matured socially and do not fit in with their age group.  They may tend to spend time with younger children as they are more comfortable with this age group.  Other youth may have significant developmental delays that affect their knowledge about appropriate sexual behavior and decision making ability.  

Delinquency / Aggression

Some teens have a history of consistently breaking rules of behavior at home, at school, or in the community as they repeatedly engage in delinquent behaviors. Their illegal sexual behavior is one more delinquent act in a pattern of highly problematic behaviors. 

Psychological Problems

Some boys who commit illegal sexual acts have serious psychological problems, such as depression, autism or disorders on the autism spectrum or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The mental illness itself does not “cause” the illegal sexual behavior but it may affect their feelings, judgments, and choices. They may be isolated and feel left out of normal teen activities and turn to children as substitutes for age-appropriate relationships. 

Exposure to Sexual Materials or Behaviors

Teenagers today have easy access to highly sexualized materials through movies, television, music, the Internet, and magazines. Sex is used to sell almost everything, and ordinary media content is more highly sexualized than ever. Some boys report that they were viewing sexually explicit materials prior to their illegal behavior and that this material influenced their actions. Some teens live in a highly sexualized home with frequent, open sexual behavior between adults. This environment, too, can affect their choices and behaviors. 

Sexual Abuse

Some adolescents have themselves been sexually abused. The abuse might have been recent, might be ongoing, or could be something that happened when they were much younger. The majority of teens with illegal sexual behavior, however, have not been sexually abused. 

Problems with Sexual Attraction to Children

A small number of adolescents may be sexually attracted to children rather than to age-appropriate peers. They may be developing a mental disorder known as pedophilia. Pedophilia involves intense sexual arousal to children 13 or younger. To be diagnosed, the person must be at least 16 years old and at least five years older than the child they are attracted to. This is a rare condition in adolescents and only a qualified professional should make a diagnosis. 

What we know is that your teen may have been involved in illegal sexual behavior for many reasons. Each teen’s reasons are different.  Each family is different. What’s important now is to understand which of these factors are most relevant for your child. Then you and your child’s treatment provider can work together to get him or her going in the right direction again so that he or she can have a safe and productive future. 

Understanding teens with illegal sexual behavior is a complex challenge. Even the experts who provide treatment according to the best available evidence know that they are working with just that, the best evidence currently available. Our knowledge of adolescents who engage in illegal sexual behavior is constantly changing and expanding. 

One important thing to know is that youth under age 18 commit a substantial number of the sex offenses committed in the United States. At least one-third of all sexual abuse of children is committed by boys and girls under 18. And according to the U.S. Department of Justice, adolescents account for about 17 percent of all arrests for sex offenses. Boys commit the majority of these offenses, an estimated 90 percent, and girls commit about 10 percent of the offenses. 


Questions Most Commonly Asked by Parents

Most parents have unanswered questions about teens who engage in illegal sexual behavior. Most parents must sort through a lot of wrong information as they try to get a better understanding of their son’s or daughter’s behavior. What follows are answers to questions most commonly asked by parents, based on the best and most reliable information we have now. Because teenage boys and girls with illegal sexual behavior have some differences, we’ll discuss each gender separately. 

Do these boys go on to become adult sex offenders?

Current research shows that the majority of adolescents with illegal sexual behavior do not go on to become adult sex offenders. Moreover, if a boy with illegal sexual behavior receives treatment, he is far less likely to reoffend. Research shows for adolescents who receive treatment rates of committing another sexual offense is low, from 3 to 14 percent. 

What kinds of families do boys with illegal sexual behavior have?

All types of families. The families of boys with illegal sexual behavior are as diverse as the boys themselves. The families may have biological parents, step-parents, grandparents, foster or adoptive parents, or kinship parents. The families have many different levels of income and education and they represent all ethnicities. Many of these families are functioning well and have typical family problems. Other families experience high levels of stress along with a history of problems with maltreatment, substance abuse, domestic violence, and/ or unstable employment. 

What type of boy commits this behavior?

All types of boys commit illegal sexual behavior, including


  • boys with no previous delinquent behavior to boys with an extensive history of aggressive or delinquent acts;
  • boys with no major behavior problems at home or school to boys with significant problems at home and in school;
  • boys with good school performance and grades to boys with poor school performance and learning problems;
  • boys with no history of abuse, neglect, or serious family problems to boys with a history of abuse or neglect and highly problematic family situations;
  • boys with good social skills and friendships to boys with poor social skills and few or no friends;
  • boys with positive peer group and school activities to boys with a delinquent peer group and low involvement in school activities.
Do adolescents commit serious sex offenses?

Some do. While some teens’ illegal sexual behavior is limited to touching a child or having a child touch them, others have extensive, aggressive sexual behavior that includes forced vaginal or anal penetration. 

Do boys tell the truth about what they did?

Some boys immediately admit the illegal sexual behavior when questioned by their parents or the parents of the victim. Others admit the behavior when questioned by the police or Child Protective Services. Others admit much later, after they enter treatment. Some boys say they did not do anything, and they stick to that story for months. These boys often refuse to admit the truth because they are afraid of the consequences. Such boys report that the longer they don’t tell the truth, the harder it is to tell the truth later. 

Who are the victims?

Most teenage boys have sexual activity with younger children that they know and spend time with. This includes younger siblings, cousins, children of a neighbor, or children that they babysit. It is unusual for an adolescent boy to have illegal sexual behavior with a child he doesn’t know. Adolescents rarely abuse children they don’t know and they see on a playground or in a mall.

If my son abused a young boy, does that mean he’s gay?

Adolescents commit sex offenses against both young boys and girls. Because their offending frequently is opportunistic, their offenses may not reflect any gender preference, but simply opportunity.   They typically do not prefer one gender over the other. They are involved with whichever age or gender child they are around and can get to participate. If an adolescent is involved with young boys, this does not mean he’s homosexual or will become a homosexual as an adult. It typically means that he has access to a young boy and has gotten him to participate in sexual activity. It may mean that he’s more comfortable experimenting sexually with boys than with girls. 

Do these adolescents commit other illegal or delinquent acts?

Yes, many do. The rate of future delinquent behavior in these teens, such as shoplifting, using illegal drugs, or possessing stolen property and even nonsexual aggression, is significantly higher than the rate of future illegal sexual behavior.   Parents need to be aware of the risk for other possible delinquent behavior with these teens and provide close supervision of their friends and activities.

Should adolescents be allowed to have a cell phone during this process?

The use of a cell phone should be decided based on whether the adolescent needs a phone, whether there are concerns that the adolescent may use the phone inappropriately or illegally, and whether alternatives exist. For example, how often is a phone necessary to check on a ride home, contact parents at work, check in with parents, etc.? Parents may be concerned that the phone is used inappropriately, i.e., sending sexual messages or accessing sexual information. Parents should carefully monitor the use of a phone and remove it immediately if they have any concerns about how the adolescent is using it.

What kind of financial costs are involved?

There can be costs for legal services and for treatment. In some cases, parents hire a private attorney and pay for the adolescent’s treatment. In other cases, the state will appoint an attorney to represent the adolescent at no cost to the family and the county or state will pay for the treatment program. In these cases, there is no cost for the legal and treatment services. However, there can be other costs involved. There are costs for gas to and from treatment and time off work to participate in the treatment program. Families will need to plan for such costs as they are associated with additional stress to the family.

Were these boys sexually abused as children?

Some were; many were not. Anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of teenage boys with illegal sexual behavior report being sexually abused as children. Several studies have shown that previous physical and/or psychological abuse or neglect may also play an important role. But many of these boys have not experienced any past maltreatment.

Do these boys have other psychological problems?

Some do; many do not. Some have learning disabilities or Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Some have Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) or Conduct Disorder (CD). Other psychological diagnoses, including depression or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  These diagnoses would need to be considered in treatment planning. 

Are these adolescent boys similar to adult sex offenders?

No. Most adolescents with illegal sexual behavior are quite different from adult sex offenders. Adolescents engage in fewer illegal acts over shorter periods of time, their behavior is less aggressive, and they are much less likely to be exclusively sexually attracted to young children. Most importantly their rate of future illegal sexual behavior is lower than adult sex offenders.  

Can the family of the victim personally sue me or my son or daughter?

This is an important question that should be discussed with an attorney.


Adolescent Girls with Problematic Sexual Behavior

At present, researchers have limited information on adolescent girls with problematic or illegal sexual behavior toward children. This lack of information is due to a number of reasons. Girls’ have significantly fewer illegal sexual behaviors then adolescent boys. Girls’ illegal sexual behavior is considered to be underreported to law enforcement and Child Protective Services. Also, most of the research has been based on small numbers of girls. As such, the research may not accurately represent this group as a whole. Here are some of the important aspects of what we know now

  • adolescent girls commit a range of illegal sexual behaviors, ranging from limited behaviors based on curiosity to repeated, aggressive acts;
  • some adolescent girls co-offend with adolescent males;
  • the most common sexual offenses by adolescent girls are nonaggressive acts, such as fondling, that occur in an activity such as babysitting;
  • adolescent girls account for about 10 percent of all arrests for sexual offenses by youth under age 18 and 1 percent of forcible rapes;
  • the most frequent victims are children who are between the ages of 4 – 6 years old and who are acquaintances or relatives of the teen.
  • most adolescent girls are well-functioning with limited behavioral problems while some have higher rates of behavioral health diagnoses such as PTSD, depression, anxiety or delinquent histories;
  • compared to boys, most adolescent girls with illegal sexual behavior have a more extensive and severe history of physical and sexual abuse. The girls were abused at younger ages than boys and were more likely to have been abused by multiple perpetrators;
  • the rate of future sexual offenses by adolescent girls is not known.

A case of an adolescent girl who committed an illegal sexual behavior is described here

Tips to Remember
1 Most adolescents do not have future illegal sexual behavior.
2 Adolescence is a developmental period of experimentation, risk taking, excessive self-focus and evolving cognitive development.
3 There is not one "type" or profile of adolescents who commit illegal sexual behavior.
4 Adolescents are quite different from adults with illegal sexual behaviors.
5 There are a variety of reasons why adolescents commit illegal sexual behavior.
6 Adolescent girls commit significantly fewer illegal sexual acts than boys.