Why a Child May Sexually Harm Another Child

There are many possibilities for what might cause inappropriate sexual behavior of a child to another. 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 who usually is a family member. Children may engage in sexually harmful interactions without knowing or understanding that they are being inappropriate, or that they are hurting another child.

When a child does act in sexually concerning ways towards another child it could be caused by a number of things. Some behaviors are impulsive and unplanned; others are carefully thought out or strategized. The specific circumstances and the individual children involved must be taken into consideration when trying to understand the causes of sexual abuse among children and youth.

The information below is adapted from Toni Cavanagh Johnson’s Helping Children with Sexual Behavior Problems © 2004 by Toni Cavanagh Johnson, Ph.D.

Reasons why a child’s sexual behavior moves beyond what is considered natural and healthy

When a child’s emotional and physical space is routinely violated, it may leave a feeling of distress related to sex which can then appear as sexual behaviors. In some children, the level of exposure to adult sexuality in our modern culture is so overwhelming that they are unable to make sense of it at their developmental stage. These children may engage in sexual behaviors to try to get rid of these feelings of confusion, tension and anxiety.

Below are some additional factors which may increase the likelihood that sexually concerning behaviors might emerge in a child.

Exposure to sexual information

  • Are confused about images or language from TV, movies, videos, video games, or on the Internet
  • Live in neighborhoods in which sex is a major influence
  • Live in homes with a sexualized environment
  • Live with adults or teens who act in sexual ways after drinking or taking drugs regardless of the presence of children
  • Live in sexually explicit environments in which sex is used for payment or barter  

Experiences of victimization

  • Live in homes where there is little or no physical, sexual or emotional privacy
  • Have been used to meet the emotional needs of a parent, which may be sexualized
  • Have been physically abused and or neglected and emotionally abused
  • Have observed physical violence to others
  • Exposed to interactions where sex is routinely paired with aggression

Sexually abusive experiences

  • Have been exposed to genitals or sexual acts for the sexual pleasure of others
  • Have been observed or photographed naked for the sexual stimulation of others
  • Have participated in activities to meet the sexual needs of others