A Beginner’s Guide to Sexual Behavior Problems in Children and Adolescents


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It is not just sexual behavior problems in adults that need to be treated. Around one-third of child sexual abuse perpetrators are under 18, making treatment for children and adolescents who engage in sexually harmful behaviors something that needs to be addressed. 

It is normal for children and adolescents to be curious about sex and exhibit sexual behaviors, as this is part of their development and to learn about cultural norms; however, sometimes children and adolescents engage in sexual behaviors that harm others.

Knowing the difference between normal sexual behavior and sexual behavior problems is essential. It can be uncomfortable. But the sooner harmful sexual behaviors are addressed, the better.

So how can you tell the difference?  Keep reading this guide for all you need to know about sexual behavior problems in children and adolescents. 

What Are Sexual Behavior Problems?

Sexual behavior problems can depend on the age. Different sexual behaviors are normal at different ages.

Sexual behavior is often grouped into categories:

  • Normal
  • Cautionary
  • Problematic
  • Harmful / Severe 

But in general problematic behaviors are defined as age-inappropriate. Problematic or harmful behavior is often intrusive, causes distress, or is by force.

Normal Sexual Behavior in Children

It is natural for children to be sexually curious and contrary to cultural beliefs, sexual development starts in infancy.

Normal sexual behavior in children is spontaneous, solo, or with children of a similar age. Children should also respond to any adult intervention and stop what they are doing. 


Normal sexual behavior in children includes:

  • Curiosity about nudity 
  • Touching or masturbating genitals in public
  • Playing games such as Doctors and Nurses
  • Showing genitals to peers

Studies have shown that up to 60% of boys engage in behaviors like these, and 44% of girls up to five years old. After this age, the percentage slowly drops. 


Normal sexual behavior in teenagers includes:

  • Wanting privacy
  • Masturbating in private
  • Starting to flirt and experiment with peers
  • Sexual intercourse over age 13 

As a caregiver, it can be challenging to define what is expected, but these types of behaviors do not usually warrant cause for concern.

Problematic Sexual Behaviors

Problematic sexual behaviors vary depending on age group but do raise cause for concern. Some sexual behavior problems overlap, so do not dismiss them even if your child is older or younger. 

If a child or adolescent is engaging in these behaviors and will not stop, it is time to take action. It can be uncomfortable, but it is essential to prevent the behavior from escalating. 


Problematic sexual behaviors in toddlers include:

  • Sexualized play with toys, such as humping a doll
  • Continuing to masturbate after being told to stop
  • Asking another child to engage in sexual activity


Problematic sexual behaviors in preschoolers include:

  • Using offensive sexual language even after being told to stop
  • Consistently touching private area of animals or children 
  • Attempting to put objects in genitals


Problematic sexual behaviors in school-age children include:

  • Trying sexual games with children much younger or older
  • Exposing genitals  to others
  • Preoccupied with masturbation


Problematic sexual behaviors in teenagers include:

  • Accessing abuse supportive pornography (e.g., rape themed)
  • Continuing to touch or rub genitals in public after being told to stop
  • Spying on people nude or engaging in sexual activity

Harmful Sexual Behavior 

Every 73 seconds, an American is assaulted. Every 9 minutes, the victim is a child. 

It is natural for a caregiver to find excuses or be in denial about behavior. But the following behaviors are harmful and put others at risk. All behaviors can occur in different age groups. 

These behaviors indicate the child or adolescent needs immediate help


Harmful sexual behaviors in toddlers include:

  • Masturbating to the point of excluding other activities
  • Injuring their genitals from masturbation
  • Stimulating sexual activity with other children or animals


Harmful sexual behaviors in preschoolers include:

  • Forcing or tricking others into sexual games
  • Always talking about sex
  • Touching others genitals repeatedly


Harmful sexual behaviors in school-age children include:

  • Using pornography daily or multiple times a day
  • Isolating other children to engage in sexual acts
  • Compulsive masturbation


Harmful sexual behaviors in teenagers include:

  • Sexual contact with much older or younger people
  • Sending sexual threats or unwanted sexual images 
  • Finding excuses to be alone with younger children

Causes of Sexual Behavior Problems in Children

There is no one reason why children exhibit sexual behaviors. Often it is not to do with seeking pleasure but as a way of managing complicated feelings. Some children also have other behavioral difficulties.

If a child has sexual behavior problems, it does not mean they have experienced sexual or physical abuse themselves. But this is a risk factor. Other influencing factors include:

  • Experiencing a traumatic event
  • Witnessing violence at home
  • Early exposure to sexual activity

It does not matter the socio-economic status of the child or family dynamic. Because there are so many influencing factors, any child or adolescent is susceptible. As a caregiver, it is crucial not to blame yourself but to take action to help them.

What to Do

With the proper support, children and adolescents can change their behaviors. One follow-up study found up to 98% did not act out sexually again, and they were no more likely to than the people who had no childhood sexual behavior problems. 

Act if you suspect your child is in immediate danger. Contact your state’s child welfare authority to conduct an investigation. 

Find a therapist and discuss treatment options. They will help evaluate what is best for your child.

Many treatment programs offer outpatient therapy, without a need for inpatient admission, but some children need more intensive services.

You will also be guided on how to support your child and the rest of your family at home. Siblings, and anyone else involved in the sexual behavior, will also require support. 

Get Treatment for Sexual Behavior Problems

Recognizing your child is experiencing sexual behavior problems is the first step. Do not hesitate to seek professional support, even if you are unsure about behaviors. It is much better to be aware of signs and act quickly.

With the proper evidence-based support, your child can learn to thrive again.

Steps For Change specializes in treating sexual behavior problems in children and youth, and also works with court-involved youth. Contact us today to learn more.