Child to Child Abuse: FAQs

Does child to child abuse or sexual play actually happen? 

Yes. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 23% of all sexual offenders are under the age of 18. 40% of victims under the age of 6 are abused by juveniles; 39% of victims 7-11 years of age are abused by juveniles; and 27% of victims 12-17 years of age are abused by juveniles1.  


Inappropriate sexual behaivours are activities of a sexual nature between children, which do not meet the definition of sexual abuse but are deemed undesirable due to their impact on each child’s health and welfare. Problematic sexual behaviour occurs frequently; occurs between children of widely different ages (3+ years) or different abilities; is initiated with strong, upset feelings, such as anger or anxiety; causes harm or potential harm; does not respond to typical discipline strategies; and involves coercion, force, or aggression2.  


Isn’t it normal for children to be sexually curious? What would be considered age-appropriate sexual curiosity? 


Sexual development begins in infancy and continues throughout childhood. Just as they are curious about bugs, airplanes and animals, they will be curious about their bodies and other people’s bodies. Sexual knowledge and behavior are influenced by culture and media which may lead some children to be slightly under or over developed. Understanding age-appropriate sexual curiosity can help us understand what warning signs to keep an eye on. 


Preschool Age (0-5 years): questions and express knowledge of different gender, private body parts, hygine and toileting, pregnancy and birth; exploring genitals and can potentially experience pleasure; and showing and looking at body parts.


School Age (6-8 years): will need knowledge and have questions about physical development, relationships, sexual behavior, menstruation and pregnancy, personal values; experimenting with same-age children (may include same gender) - showing and looking; and self-stimulation.


School Age (9-12 years): will need knowledge and have questions about sexual materials and information, relationships and sexual behavior, using sexual words and discussing sexual behaviors and romantic relations; increase in sexual experimentation; and self-stimulation in private. 


Adolescence (13-16 years): will need information and have questions about decision making, social relationships, sexual customs, personal values and consequences of sexual behavior; girls will begin menstruation and boys will begin producing sperm; self-stimulation in private and sexual experimentation between adolescents; voyeristic behaviors; and possible first sexual intercourse.


How can we prevent child to child harm and abuse?


There’s actually lots we can do to protect children from child to child harm or abuse.

Talk to children about staying safe and being safe with others. 

Learn about child development so you can tell the difference between expected behaviors and behaviors that may be cause for concern. 

Clarify the rules. If the child is exploring, calmly acknowledge it and set clear expectations.

If a child’s behaviour continues after you’ve set limits, talk with a professional.

Provide elevated supervision, especially during high risk periods (before and after school).

Screen and train youth volunteers/staff.

Use same-age, age groups when putting kids into groups.

Encourage age-appropriate activities. 

Closely observe media that children watch.


If a caregiver discovers child to child sexual play what should they do?


The most important thing a caregiver can do is to use it as a teachable moment. Calmly provide education in the area that appears most relevant to the situation to show kids what they should and shouldn’t be doing. Caregivers can calmly figure out what happened by asking open-ended questions and providing appropriate consequences. 


When child to child sexual play is discovered there can be a lot of shame or embarrassment. Caregivers should reassure children that they care about them and remember that these are both children. Both the child who has been harmed and the child who has done the harm are children in need of help, support and care. 


Does child to child abuse or sexual play need to be reported? 

If it is inappropriate sexual play, there is an imbalance of power/authority, there is a difference in age/abilities/strength, aggressive in nature and/or does not follow the age of consent laws, fill out a Suspected Abuse Report Form  and report it to the proper authorities. It does need to be reported because child and family services exists to protect the community and to keep children safe. 


If it is illegal sexual activity, juvenile court/family court is required to establish a plan so that children will receive treatment and will not reoffend. It is also very important to note that some, not all, children who abuse other children were abused themselves and they may need help and protection. 


Something to remember: children under 12 are rarely, if ever, charged. Children are typically only charged if it is a murder or extremely violent in nature. Child and family services can provide support and resources so that children can receive treatment. 


According to the National Center on Sexual Behaviour in Youth, research shows that for adolescents who receive treatment, rates of committing another sexual offense is very low, from 3 to 14%3.  


Other advantages of reporting appropriately, include the victim knows he/she will be believed and supported, the offender can get the help they need, the professionals can make plans for treatment, and we make a statement about how seriously we view child abuse. - PP


1Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement: Victim, Incident, and Offender Characteristics by Howard N. Snyder, Ph. D.; National Centre for Juvenile Justice, July 2000, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.

*Previously published in PROTECT publication issue 9.

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