People are often surprised to learn that, in fact, over a third of all sexual abuse of children is committed by someone under the age of 18. Most of us are clear that sexual behaviors between adults and children are illegal and harmful. It can be more difficult to recognize and respond when sexual behaviors happen between children or between older youth and children. It can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between kids engaging in mutual sexual exploration and sexual behaviors between children that are more concerning.
Children as young as 4 or 5 may unknowingly engage in sexual behavior that is inappropriate or harmful, although it is more likely that a harmful child will be of adolescent age. Usually, but not always, the child or young person causing harm is older than the other child. A child who is being abused may be uncomfortable or confused about what is happening, but may also feel that they are willingly involved or to blame for being in the situation.
Children may engage in inappropriate interactions without knowing or understanding that they are being inappropriate or that they are hurting or harming another child. It is important that adults talk with children about what behaviors are not appropriate and to set and model appropriate boundaries. For example, when we are talking with our children about how no one should touch them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable, we should also tell them it is not okay for them to touch a child in a way that makes the child uncomfortable.
It can be hard to tell the difference between sexual behaviors that are natural and healthy and those that are more concerning or harmful. Many factors must be considered including the age difference between the children, the sexual behavior itself, and how the child feels before, during, and after the interaction occurs. If you suspect that children are interacting in sexually harmful ways, seek the guidance of a professional who can assist you and your child.