Ask An Expert / Abuse

I have custody of two children, recently in foster care, who engage in sexual behavior. What can I do?

This can be normal. But abuse is also a possibility.

Janine Domingues, PhD
Janine Domingues, PhD

Clinical Psychologist, Anxiety Disorders Center

Child Mind Institute

I have recently gotten legal custody of two children, ages 5 and 3. They are from a foster home but related to us. Previously they were in counseling for sexual behavior. They are still continuing to try sexual things. Please help.

I understand this is a really stressful time for you, and for many parents knowing how to handle “sexual behavior” in children can be extremely challenging.

It is important to know that between the ages of 2 and 6, engaging in sexual behavior can be developmentally normal, and simply the result of curiosity. As children begin to notice differences in their bodies, they may start to feel different sensations, and also be curious about other people’s bodies, especially the opposite sex. Children at this age may also not understand appropriate boundaries and therefore are exploring the limits of what is allowed and what is not. There are other factors that may also influence the frequency of sexual behavior. A change in environment, like your children’s recent transition, can contribute to this.

Keep in mind that normal sexual behavior in children tends to be temporary and responsive to redirection — meaning, if you direct the child to something more appropriate or calmly tell them not to engage in sexual behavior, children typically respond well. Signs that sexual behaviors may be problematic are if the behavior continues to increase in frequency despite redirection, and if behaviors seem to be aggressive, coercive, and/or lead to injury — in which case seeking psychological help can determine what may be contributing to these behaviors and provide ways for you to respond and help.

When we are feeling really stressed out it can cause us to respond to these situations in a highly emotional manner, which can exacerbate the problem. It is best to remain calm and address sexual behaviors in a neutral tone. Additionally, it is important to set boundaries, perhaps by explaining in an age-appropriate way that this behavior is done in “private.” Have a talk with each child about what are appropriate touches (for example, “good touch and bad touch”) and what is appropriate play with peers — they may need several reminders as they are learning. Be open to any questions and help them feel like they can come to you. You also do not want to punish the behavior and make the children feel guilty; stay calm, help them understand boundaries, and redirect their behavior.

Lastly, I wanted to address the possibility that abnormal sexual behaviors in children may be due to sexual abuse. If so, the behaviors could be related to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as it is typical for children to reenact abuse. Children may not necessarily know what they are doing is inappropriate and again as a parent you want to avoid reacting in a way that may shame them. If the sexual behaviors are related to sexual abuse, this can be addressed in therapies like trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT).