Overly sexualised behaviour

In brief

  • Overly sexualised behaviour involves the child's sexual behaviour becoming compulsive, violent or lacking joy and spontaneity.
  • Sexual behaviour begins to dominate the child's life and leaves no energy for other things.
  • The child might have more knowledge about sexuality than would be age-appropriate and his or her behaviour might be very adult-like or differ from the behaviour of peers in a significant way.
In order to avoid misinterpretation, such as interpreting a child's normal behaviour as a sign of sexual abuse, it is important to be aware of what belongs to normal development in children. You should be aware of what kind of behaviour is part of a child's normal development, in order to evaluate whether the child's behaviour should give reason for concern (see also ”Sexual development of children”). Sexual growth is a part of a child's normal development, and this might involve curiosity, sexual play and experimentation. In addition, the child might experiment with role models in the surrounding society by engaging in "seductive" behaviour. As a rule of thumb, as long as the child's sexual behaviour is characterised by curiosity, joy and a voluntary approach, there is no reason to worry. Parents and other adults who spend time with children need to set limits to the children's behaviour if needed – as is the case with bringing up children in general – and show the kind of behaviour that is acceptable in different contexts. For example, preschool children might like to be naked when at home or staying at the summer cottage. Many families find this acceptable, while taking one's clothes off at a children's club or school is not. It is also quite common that children touch their genitals. According to some studies, at least a fifth of children under school age do this in front of adults.

If the child's or adolescent's activities related to sexuality, such as play, become compulsive, violent or lack joy and spontaneity, this indicates intrusive sexual behaviour or overly sexualised behaviour. Sexual behaviour that occupies a central role in the child's life, leaving no energy for other things, can also be considered abnormal. The child might have more knowledge about sexuality than would be age-appropriate, and his or her behaviour might be very adult-like or differ from the behaviour of peers in a significant way. A child's overly sexualised behaviour might also evoke worry or negative reactions in other children. In later life, adolescents might develop problems with their sexuality and engage in risky sexual behaviour, including multiple partners and unprotected intercourse.

Adult-like sexual behaviour, such as oral sex, intercourse or attempted intercourse, is rarely a part of a child's normal sexual behaviour (see section ”Sexual development of children”). Previously this has been considered a sign of sexual abuse. However, most children behaving in such a way have not been sexually abused: studies show that only a minority of children showing adult-like sexual behaviour have experienced sexual abuse. The older the child, the less his or her sexual behaviour or awareness of sexual matters and experience of sexual abuse are linked to each other. This means that sexual abuse is only one possible factor explaining overly sexualised behaviour. In relative terms, it is a less likely explanation than many other possible reasons, such as other crises the child has been through. It is not possible to draw conclusions on whether a child has experienced sexual abuse based on the child's sexual behaviour.