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Problematic Sexual Behavior

Up to this point in the Manual we have provided guidance on understanding, preventing, responding to, and reporting child maltreatment perpetrated by adults against the children and youth who are your students. However, children and adolescents can also be subjected to maltreatment by their peers. Problematic Sexual Behavior (PSB), as defined earlier, involves sexual behaviors between children that lie outside of normative or typical sexual behavior. PSBs are child-initiated behaviors involving sexual body parts (i.e., genitals, anus, buttocks, or breasts) that are developmentally inappropriate and/or potentially harmful to themselves or others. 108 As you will see, our understanding of this issue is an evolving one. Our goal in including this section is to provide educators and others with the latest research, information, resources, and guidance as well as an update on the actions the Commonwealth is taking to enhance interagency collaboration and to build effective intervention and treatment strategies.

In recent years, there has been an increasing awareness as well as a number of research studies about the high number of children (0-18 years) who are sexually harmed by other children or adolescents. Among the reported cases, early research indicated that over one third (35.6%) of all incidents of child sexual maltreatment in the U.S. are committed by other children or teens. 109 However, more recent survey studies of older adolescents and parents of younger children found that as many as 70-77% of the sexual assaults and abuse experienced by children and teens were committed by other children or teens. 110 The difference in these estimates has been attributed to the fact that the earlier studies relied either on case information that had been reported to the authorities or on information being recalled retrospectively by adults who were harmed as children. Conversely, the newer studies used anonymously gathered parent reports (for children up to age 9) and self-reports from youth ages 10-17.

Thinking of children or youth as capable of causing sexual harm or engaging in problematic sexual behavior with other children or youth can be difficult to consider and challenging to address. We must be cautious, however, not to look at children with problematic sexual behavior through the same lens as adult sexual offenders. Even though some of the behaviors of children and adolescents with PSB may resemble those of adult sexual behavior, the reasons for the behavior are quite different. Research has shown that PSB in childhood (and the risk of reoffending) arise from combinations of individual, family, social, and developmental factors which are in contrast to the motivations of adult sex offenders and their low levels of responsiveness to treatment. 111 , 112 Research also shows that children with PSB are at minimal risk to reoffend, or to become adult sex offenders, especially if they receive appropriate treatment. 113 , 114 , 115 In fact, a recent meta-analysis of children and adolescents with PSB who received appropriate intervention (education, skills training, and therapy that included parent engagement) concluded that the recidivism rate was less than 3%. 116

Another caution for educators and other caregivers to be aware of (especially those unfamiliar with the issue) is that it’s not always easy to tell the difference between normal sexual curiosity and behaviors that are problematic or potentially harmful or abusive. The following may be helpful in that regard.

108 https://www.ncsby.org/content/overview-and-definitions

109 Finkelhor, Ormrod, and Chaffin (2009). Juveniles Who Commit Sex Offenses Against Minors: OJJDP Juvenile Justice Bulletin, (December 2009): https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/227763.pdf

110 Gewirtz-Meydan & Finkelhor (2019). Sexual Abuse and Assault in a Large National Sample of Children and Adolescents. (https://www.unh.edu/ccrc/sites/default/files/media/2022-03/sexual-abuse-and-assault-in-a-large-national-sample-of-children-and-adolescents.pdf).

111 Silovsky, J. F., Swisher, L. M., Widdifield, J., & Burris, L. (2012). Clinical considerations when children have problematic sexual behavior. In Handbook of Child Sexual Abuse (pp. 399–428). Wiley-Blackwell. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118094822.ch18

112 Shawler, P. M., Elizabeth Bard, M., Taylor, E. K., Wilsie, C., Funderburk, B., & Silovsky, J. F. (2018). Parent-child interaction therapy and young children with problematic sexual behavior: A conceptual overview and treatment considerations. Children and Youth Services Review, 84, 206–214. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2017.12.006

113 Chaffin, M. (2008). Our minds are made up–Don’t confuse us with the facts: Commentary on policies concerning children with sexual behavior problems and juvenile sex offenders. Child Maltreatment, 13(2), 110–121. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077559508314510

114 Finkelhor, Ormrod, and Chaffin (2009). Juveniles Who Commit Sex Offenses Against Minors: OJJDP Juvenile Justice Bulletin, (December 2009): https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/227763.pdf

115 Christiansen, A. K., & Vincent, J. P. (2013). Characterization and prediction of sexual and nonsexual recidivism among adjudicated juvenile sex offenders. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 31(4), 506–529. https://doi.org/10.1002/bsl.2070

116 Caldwell, M. F. (2016, July 18). Quantifying the decline in juvenile sexual recidivism rates. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 22(4), 414-426. doi: 10.1037/law0000094.


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