Sexually Reactive Children

A group of kids playing on the steps of a building

As parents, teachers, ministers, counselors, and childcare providers, how can we distinguish normal sex play from sexually “acting out”? And what do we do about it if we encounter sexually reactive children who engage in overt and continuous sexual behavior?

  • Six-year-old Jason has been touching his infant foster sister inappropriately.
  • Eight-year-old Alisha undresses younger children on the playground and mimics oral sex.
  • Ten-year-old Adam was caught masturbating a same-age, same-sex playmate in the boys’ bathroom at school.

All the above children have one thing in common: They are sexually reactive children, which means that they are acting out in sexual ways because they themselves have been sexually abused in the past. It is learned behavior.

sexually reactive children Sexually Reactive Children

Sexual abuse is a common cause of sexually reactive children. 

These children relate to others in sexual ways because these are behaviors with which they are familiar. They have either watched or participated in sexual acts. Although sexual abuse is a horrible act against anyone, sometimes these young victims don’t understand the dynamics or realize the ramifications. Not all perpetrators behave violently with their young victims, and when or if a child has derived pleasure from the act, It’s even more confusing for them to understand the nature of abuse.

Without intervention, redirection, and therapy, these children can grow up to be juvenile and adult sex offenders. Some children are eroticised without becoming offenders, so we should be careful to avoid labeling all sexually reactive children as perpetrators.

Though there is no rigid profile of the sexually reactive child, there are some characteristics that are found most often in these children, and include:

  • A history of sexual abuse.
  • Acting out with children younger than themselves.
  • Has a knowledge of sex that is beyond their age level. (Ex: Vibrators, dildos, condoms, etc).
  • Simulates copulation with dolls, toys, other children, and even animals and adults.
  • Appears to have little or no age-appropriate fear of strangers.
  • Has no sense of boundaries, modesty, or privacy where their personal physical space is concerned.
  • Often acts in a flirtatious or promiscuous ways that are not age-appropriate.
  • Uses coercion, bribery, or force in what would appear to be otherwise normal sex play with same-age friends.
  • Sexual contact with other children appears to be more adult in nature than age-appropriate.
  • Demands secrecy, and makes threats of harm if the acts are disclosed.
  • Lies or manipulates when confronted with knowledge of the sexual contact.
  • Uses objects, violence, or weapons during a sex act.
  • Touches children and adults inappropriately, and in public (breasts, vagina, groin, buttocks). Excessive masturbation and exposure.
  • Sexualized themes during play and conversations, including drawing, painting, and playing with dolls and dollhouses.

Remember, it is normal for a child to have a healthy curiosity about sex and body parts. Don’t be alarmed when same-age children play doctor with one another. Do be alarmed if some or most of the above red flags appear consistently in a child.

Not all sexually reactive children act out because of overt sexual abuse. Some imitate pornography that may belong to a household member. Some mimic what they may see in their own parents’ or teenage sibling’s bedroom.

If you encounter a child who you suspect is sexually reactive, you may:

  • Bring it to the attention of the parents.
  • If the parents dismiss or don’t acknowledge concern, inform a social worker, nurse, counselor, or minister.

Why should we bring it to someone’s attention?

Because it may be your little boy or girl who encounters the sexually reactive child in the school bathroom or park.

Again, not all sexually abused children grow up to be perpetrators, but sexually reactive children can and should learn specific skills in recognizing his behavior and redirecting it. These skills can be taught to very young children. Family therapy is often the key to successful intervention and treatment.

Though It’s a delicate subject, It’s one that needs to be addressed, because help is available to children who act out sexually. Behavior can be refocused, trauma can be repaired, and lives can be restored.

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