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Problematic Sexual Behavior

Many parents do not want to consider their children as having any sexual behavior until they are much older, but in reality, humans start exhibiting signs of such as early as infancy. As a child grows up, they will engage in different behaviors at different stages, first, often driven by curiosity, then pleasure. This is normal! As a parent, it's important to know what behaviors are acceptable and part of normal development, because only then will you be able to tell when behaviors become problematic.


Problematic sexual behavior (PSB) is defined as behavior by children or youth under the age of 18 that involves using sexual body parts in ways that are developmentally inappropriate or potentially harmful to the individual or individuals impacted by the behavior.


It’s incredibly important to talk to your child about their body parts and body boundaries, using appropriate names for the parts. Teach your child what they shouldn’t be doing, which will change with age, and teach them how they can say no. Make sure to also teach them to respect when other people say "no."


Some initial characteristics of behaviors that might be indicative of PSB are the following:

  • Behaviors occur frequently (they happen often, not just occasionally)

  • Behaviors take place between children of widely differing ages (such as a 12-year-old who acts out with a 4-year-old) or between children of different abilities

  • Behaviors are initiated with strong, upset feelings, such as anger or anxiety

  • Behaviors cause harm or potential harm (physical or emotional) to any child (including the child performing the behaviors)

  • Behaviors do not respond to typical parenting strategies

  • Behaviors involve coercion, force, or aggression of any kind (this indicates a need for professional help)


Concerning behaviors generally involve inappropriate touching of sexual body parts or trying to see another individual while naked.


PSB is very different than deviant sexual behavior in adults. Children displaying PSB often are reacting to anxiety, anger, or a traumatic experience; curious after seeing sexual material; trying to imitate someone else; or even just trying to calm themselves. This behavior is not limited to any one demographic. It’s important to remember that these are still children. And right now, these are children who are in need of treatment. Treatment usually is very effective and children rarely have continued problems into adulthood.


Colorado’s child advocacy centers have been trained in responding to PSB in children. Many have mental health clinicians who are trained specifically in PSB treatment. If your child is displaying signs of problematic sexual behavior, please contact your local CAC for assistance.

Resources for More Information: 

Restoring the Sacred Circle for AI/AN youth:

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