Normative and problematic sexualized behaviours among children and youth in the child welfare system

Date Published: 

Grossi, L. M., Lee, A. F., Schuler, A., Ryan, J. L., & Prentky, R. A. (2016). Sexualized behaviors in cohorts of children in the child welfare system. Child Abuse & Neglect, 52, 49-61. Doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2015.12.014.

Reviewed by: 
Biru Zhou

Sexualized behaviours can be observed throughout childhood and adolescence. In this study, the authors examined the patterns of normative sexualized behaviours (NSB) and problematic sexualized behaviours (PSB) among boys and girls in a high-risk child welfare sample. The sample was divided into three age cohorts: age two to seven for the youngest cohort, age 8 to 11 for the middle childhood cohort, and age 12 to 17 for the preadolescence/adolescence cohort. Normative sexualized behaviours were defined as sexual behaviours that were non-coercive in nature, lacked overtly paraphilic features, and did not involve other children who had a two-year age discrepancy. Specific behaviours of NSB examined in this study included hugging, kissing, holding hands with age mates, interests in pornography, and non-coercive penetration with age mates. Problematic sexualized behaviours involved coercion, paraphilic features, or involved children who were much younger (i.e., 4 years or more). Specific behaviours for PSB included intentional invasion of another person’s personal space, forced sexual acts, sexually explicit orders or threats, sexual touching of much younger child, genital touching without permission, and sexual aggression.

Records of 789 children and adolescents (638 boys and 151 girls) who had received the Assessment for Safe and Appropriate Placement (ASAP) evaluations between 1998 and 2004 were examined in this study. This is a high risk sample because all children in this study had exhibited some PSBs in the past. Each domain of NSB and PSB were examined separately in the analysis. Results demonstrated that there was a general linear increase in both NSB and PSB across the three age cohorts. NSBs were lower in incidence, and they were observed relatively infrequently among younger cohorts until preadolescence/adolescence possibly due to close monitoring by multiple observers for young children. One notable NSB difference observed between boys and girls was their interests in pornography, with girls showing low base rates across the three age cohorts, and boys showing increasing interests in the use of pornography.

Regarding PSB, there was an absence of significant pattern of PSBs across the three age cohorts for girls, except for sexual touching of a much younger child that was more likely to be reported by the older cohort. In contrast, boys showed a significant linear increase in four of the six PSBs -- sexually explicit orders or threats, sexual touching of much younger child, genital touching without permission and forced sexual acts. The authors suggested that given children in this study all had prior exhibitions of PSBs, this sample of ASAP evaluations were hyper-supervised. This may have offset some of the increasing trend of PSBs due to heightened vigilance regarding monitoring sexualized behaviours by multiple observers in the child welfare system. This is consistent with previous research that children with PSBs in child welfare systems may in fact be exposed to hypervigilant monitoring by caregivers, such as foster parents or case workers, because the goal of the system is to provide safety and permanency.

Methodological notes: 

A strength of this study is that it examined not only problematic but also normative sexualized behaviours among three age cohorts. Yet, there are some limitations that need to be taken into account when interpreting the results. The same sexualized behaviours (e.g., genital touching without permission) might be considered as problematic for a 15-year-old but not for a 5-year-old. It is important for future studies to look into stability features of different domains of behaviours as children age. Moreover, the subjective nature of theses ASAP records were called to question because these documents were dependent on professional judgement, potential biases, and when and who became aware of the sexualized behaviours.  Future research should consider examination of reports from multiple sources (e.g., self, parents, teachers, case workers, etc.) to compare actual versus observed sexualized behaviours over time.