When it Isn’t Just Play

The image many parents have of a sexual molester is of an adult male or female. There are cases, however, of children who sexually abuse other children. This concept can be difficult for parents to imagine or even believe, but it’s vital to know the difference between age appropriate sexual behavior between children and age-inappropriate behavior that can be classified as abuse.

An Uncomfortable Tale

Let’s approach this topic with a true story. The post below was written by a father who has two boys, ages 3 and 6. They sometimes “share a nanny” with family friends who also have 2 boys around the same age. He was shocked after hearing what happened one afternoon:

“…the nanny walked in on their older boy giving oral to my 3-year-old boy, and according to the nanny he was asking the older boy to stop doing what he was doing. We later found their older boy asked ours to give him oral sex as well. My wife and I think this is a pretty big deal, and I’m wondering if this has happened before, how many times?…[The other boy’s mother] believes it was nothing more than a boy exploring his sexuality…

If it was my child that had done this I would have been mortified…I can understand a child exploring their own body…[but] this was a boy acting out sexually on a 3-year-old boy, MY 3-year-old boy. Who is too young to understand that behavior…”

This story captures the real-world incidence of children sexually abusing other children. Although uncomfortable to think about, the truth is that infants and toddlers go through phases of sexual development. Both physically and emotionally, young children experience and explore their own sexuality. And because children are sexually maturing, there is always the potential of another more “mature” child purposefully or accidentally sexually abusing his peers.

Sexual Development in Children

What kind of sexual development exists for kids? How early does it start?

Nearly from the beginning. Infants, for example, rely on the touch of their mother for emotional comfort and security. This type of bonding sets the stage for intimate encounters later in life. Toddlers and infants also touch their genitals, run around naked, and experience erections and arousal. These kinds of behaviors are perfectly normal for this stage of child development. The ways you react to their first sexual behaviors—a soft voice and comforting expressions, not alarm and punishment—lets your child know their behavior is normal, too.

The older child in the above story is also experiencing sexual changes. Around pre-school age (ages 3-5) children latch onto their gender identity (“I’m a boy,” “I’m a girl”). They start asking question after question about everything under the sun (sex included), and may also explore each other’s bodies out of curiosity. Let’s call this phase “playing doctor.”

The 6-year-old child in the example is in a different area of development than either a 3-year-old or 5-year-old. Children in the elementary age group (6-10) relish taking on their gender roles, and become more susceptible to media influence. They also begin asking other children about sexuality, which can further skew their ideas of what is right and wrong. At this age, it’s important to answer their questions about sex honestly, as misinformation can lead to more confusion or inappropriate behavior.

Appropriate vs. Inappropriate Sexual Behavior in Children

As a parent, it’s important to be aware of the common questions and behaviors your child has regarding sexuality at different stages of development. The more awareness you have, the quicker you can spot interactions and behaviors that are not age appropriate, either in your own child or children they come in contact with. Although an sobering statistic, research shows that one-third of sexual abuse aimed at children comes from children 18-years-old or younger. Knowledge, in this case, is power.

<blockquote=”pull”>Research shows that one-third of sexual abuse aimed at children comes from children 18-years-old or younger.

But why would children sexually abuse other children in the first place? There may be many causes. Perhaps the child is a victim of sexual abuse him or herself. Maybe he or she lives in an environment where violence and sexual aggression, either in media or in the household, are a daily occurrence. These kinds of behaviors may also be innocent mistakes, a short-lived pattern of behavior that will fade with time.

It’s for this reason being educated and aware of what is “normal” sexual development and curiosity comes into play. There is a point where “playing doctor” crosses a serious line, a threshold where maturity levels clash and certain behaviors should not be seen as “innocent” anymore. Although the abuser may be a child, repeated incidents of age-inappropriate sexual behavior should be a cause for concern and discussion.

What to Watch For

Here is a short list of age-inappropriate behaviors to be aware of if you believe your child is being sexually abused by another child: Does your school age (6-10) child:

  • Seek out the company of much younger children?
  • Take a younger child to “secret places?”
  • Routinely touch or cuddle a young child who doesn’t want to be touched?
  • Act anxious when a particular child is around them?
  • Show or talk about sexual material to younger children?
  • Repeatedly exposes his or her genitals to a younger child?

For comparison, developmentally normal sexual behaviors for young children include the following:

  • The children are ongoing school friends.
  • The children are each the same relative age and size.
  • The children are in the middle of the same “phase” of development (both pre-school age, both school age, etc).
  • The children listen to the limits and rules their parents and adults set for this kind of play.

If your child’s interactions with another child, especially a child in a different stage of sexual development, do not conform to behaviors on these lists, please consider seeking help and having an involved discussion with your child.

Accepting the Reality

As a parent, it’s unthinkable that your child may be the victim or agent of sexual harm to another child. Feelings of anger, confusion, and shame are normal reactions in this situation. The great news is that the earlier an intervention can happen to correct this behavior, the greater chance no lasting psychological damage will occur, and the less likely your child will continue being either a victim or agent of sexual abuse.

“Playing doctor” is fine up to a point, but no child can play doctor forever.

Once you accept that your young child’s sexuality is a reality, it’s your obligation as a parent to watch for signs of age-inappropriate sexual conduct in your own child and the children they interact with.