Is this little girl sexually harming another little girl?
Dear Stop It Now!,
I've read the pamphlet "Do children sexually abuse other children?" and have some questions. I am thinking of a situation and seeking further clarification. To explain the situation I would like to use fake names.
Marissa is 7 years old. She is forced to go to Ashley's house everyday after school because Marissa's parents are at work. Ashley is also 7.
Ashley's mother is supposed to watch the two of them but is rarely around. If she is around she is smoking, drinking, or watching TV. Ashley's mom and her boyfriend fight a lot, so Marissa doesn't like going to Ashley's house.
One day Ashley asks Marissa to kiss her. Marissa doesn't want to but Ashley is mean and says she will say mean things about Marissa at school if she doesn't kiss her. This pattern continues to various levels of sexual contact that Marissa does not want to engage in (touching of genitals). Each time Ashley says she will tell everyone what Marissa is doing if Marissa doesn't do what Ashley wants.
There is never any physical violence, but Marissa hates going to Ashley's house. The pattern ends when Marissa cries to her parents and refuses to ever go back to Ashley's house again. After a couple of weeks Marissa's parents are able to find another parent to provide after school care and Marissa stops going to Ashley's house.
Is this sexual abuse?
Dear Worried Caregiver,
I'm so sorry to hear that this happened to this young girl. You're right that often it can be difficult to understand what child sexual abuse really is, especially when it involves two children. I'm glad you've reached out to us. Based on what you shared, this does fit the criteria of sexually harmful behaviors between children.
Children's Sexual Behaviors
Children's behaviors range from healthy and developmentally expected, to concerning and inappropriate, to sexually harmful, and yes, even abusive. Age-Appropriate play occurs between two children who are close in age and who agree to it mutually, and the play is very child-like (the two kids may be caught out in the open giggling). When there is a significant difference in age (typically 3 or more years), size, or development, sexual behaviors between children can be considered sexually abusive. Also, if there were any mature and adult-like sexual acts beyond what is developmentally expected for their age groups, this can also be considered Child Sexual Abuse.
Marissa clearly said no and did not want to play this way, so this was not mutual and consensual “normal” exploration or play. The use of threats increases the concern, and while you didn’t describe these additional behaviors, I would be worried if they appeared to be more mature and adult like than we would typically find in healthy and developmentally appropriate curiosity.
It's great that you read through our guidebook, Do Children Sexually Harm Other Children? As you now probably know, children’s sexual behaviors are very different than those of adult’s. That’s not to minimize or deny any of the harm or pain that Ashley has caused, but rather to say that she may not have fully recognized her behaviors in the same way that adults do – as sexual. Often children know they’re doing something wrong, but don’t really know why or how it can impact the other child.
Responding with Care and Safety
Part of this also involves gauging Marissa’s response, and how she’s doing now. Kids are resilient, and as each child reacts differently to events like these it’s important for caregivers to keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary in her mood, behavior, or development like these Warning Signs in Children of Possible Sexual Abuse. This may or may not be something she finds significant, so it’s important for loved ones to take a cue from her. If there is any concern that Marissa is experiencing stress from her experience with Ashley, her parents might want to seek support in the form of Counseling.
Though I’m unsure of your relationship to these two families, speaking up and becoming educated are two great steps that loved ones can take to prevent abuse. I’ve included some additional resources below that you may want to check out.
Involving Other Caregiving Adults
If at all possible, it’s strongly recommended that Ashley’s parents are informed of her behaviors. There are many reasons why a child may engage in sexually harmful behavior, but it is always good to step in and help children learn safe and respectful behaviors and address any questions or concerns they might have. Sometimes it can be helpful to involve an experienced counselor to help both the child and the family think about safety planning, and how to both teach and supervise their child so that healthy and safe behaviors are maintained. It might be helpful to look at our tip sheet on Talking with Parents About their Child's Sexual Behaviors.
Another option would be to think about reporting this child's harmful sexual behaviors to Child Protective Services (CPS). If CPS does do an investigation, they can help make sure that both Ashley and Marissa have the appropriate resources they need to lead healthy and safe lives. You did note a possible concern in Ashley's home life, and how she is supervised. This is concerning, and may be reason to report in and of itself. Our page on Reporting has more information on what this process looks like, and can also direct you to the correct number for CPS in your state.
Stop It Now!
Last edited on: August 14th, 2018