Smart Justice For Children

Childhood is supposed to be a time of innocence, filled with laughter, play, and learning. However, the reality is that children are not always safe and can be exposed to abuse and harm. While most people associate child abuse with adults harming children, child-on-child abuse is a growing concern. About 40% of calls received by Plan to Protect® are related to child-to-child abuse, which shows that this issue is widespread and needs attention.

Child-on-child abuse refers to inappropriate sexual behavior between children that does not meet the definition of sexual abuse but is deemed undesirable due to its impact on each child’s health and welfare. These behaviors can take different forms such as touching, looking, oral-genital contact, and intercourse, and may involve coercion, rape, or aggression.

According to Finelhorn, Ormrod, and Chaffin (2009), 1/3 of sexual offenses are committed by other youth. While adults who sexually abuse children may have deviant sexual arousal, it is different for children. Children’s sexual behaviors usually take place for other reasons, such as when a child feels anxious or angry, is reacting to a traumatic experience, seeks attention, or is merely trying to calm themselves. Therefore, it is essential to recognize when a child’s sexual acts or behaviors are concerning and require intervention.

One of the characteristics of concerning sexual behavior is that it causes harm or potential harm (physical or emotional) to any child. Other characteristics include frequent occurrence, taking place between children of widely differing ages, being initiated with strong, upset feelings, and not responding to typical strategies such as discipline. Parents and caregivers should be concerned if sexual behavior does not respond to parental intervention, involves coercion, race, or aggression of any kind, or is clearly beyond the child’s developmental stage.

Fortunately, there are ways to prevent child-on-child abuse. First, parents and caregivers should talk to children about staying safe and being safe with others. While most parents talk with their children about how to keep themselves safe from others who may sexually harm them, we also need to talk to our children about why it is essential not to harm others. Children should be informed that it is not okay to use tricks or force to touch other people in a way that makes them uncomfortable, just as it is not okay to hit and hurt other people.

Second, it is essential to clarify the rules. When you find your child exploring his or her body or “playing doctor” with another child, calmly acknowledge what you’ve seen and set clear expectations. For example, you can say, “It looks like you and Janie are comparing your bodies. Now get dressed. And remember, even though it feels good to take our clothes off, we keep our clothes on when we’re playing.” If a child continues behaviors after you’ve set clear limits, you may want to talk with a professional.

Third, parents and caregivers should be willing to talk about sexuality. Informal sex education could include watching educational videos and reading books with your children. It is also helpful to be knowledgeable about healthy sexual development so you can tell the difference between expected behaviors and behaviors that may be cause for concern. This knowledge can help you set clear expectations for your children.

Finally, it is essential to remember that child-on-child abuse is preventable. The earlier you catch it, the more you can intervene while the child is younger, and the less likely it is that they will carry those problems into adulthood. Parents and caregivers should learn about child development and understand that sexual development starts in infancy and continues throughout childhood. Most children are curious about the world, including bodies and differences in gender. By being aware and informed, we can protect our children and help them grow into healthy and confident adults. 

*Previously published in PROTECT publication issue 10.

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