ACTING OUT SEXUALLY
One of the most perplexing and taboo topics for parents can be that of sexuality.
Parents welcome vulnerable children/teens into their homes, and are often surprised and uncomfortable when confronted with sexual behavior or fearful of what will
happen if they do encounter this issue.
Common issues include:
- acting out sexually with other children
- sexualized behavior at a younger age, and at times
- sexual advances towards adults
Culturally, there is a broad continuum of attitudes towards sex with the conservative church at times uncomfortable with the word sex or masturbation, to the opposite extreme of anything goes. Things are complicated more by the varying cultural opinions that children from other countries bring home with them. Most parents find themselves somewhere in between, but ill-equipped to have these discussions with their children, especially older children newly in their care. Language barriers add a whole new dimension to this issue! Either way, it is not uncommon for children in foster care or who have been adopted to have sexual behaviors that are concerning.
Why Children Act out Sexually:
Invasive Medical Procedures:
Sometimes children have undergone unexplained or confusing medical procedures on private parts or other parts of the body that caused them to feel invaded (Strickland, 2012). Many of these children are without the care of parents to help them make sense of these experiences.
History of abuse:
In the general population, one in three to four girls and one in five to six boys are exposed to sexual abuse before age 18 (NCTSN). For children living in foster or institutional care, the figures are more devastating. Children who are separated from their families for any length of time are twice as likely to be sexually abused (Finkelhor, 2010). An estimated three out of four school aged children who have been in foster care have experienced some form of sexual abuse, sometimes before entering foster care, other times after. Many experts in the field suggest that the figures could even be as high as 85-95% (Strickland, 2012). Children are most often abused by someone they know and trust. Abusers sometimes use physical force, but may also use deception, threats, or other manipulative tactics to keep the child engaged. These tactics are intended to confuse and disarm the child (Strickland, 2012). It is important to understand that some parts of the abusive situation may have been positive for the child: attention instead of neglect, avoiding physical punishment, touching that was physically pleasurable, having a sense of control over the environment because of manipulation or bribes (Strickland, 2012). In some situations, children are trained to perform sexual favors for various adults as a way of currying favor. When a teen feels that a new caregiver is displeased with them, they may initiate sexual encounters thinking that will help to appease a displeased parent. Most children keep sexual abuse a secret, at least initially (NCTSN). Some countries even coach their children in this, teaching them to not tell their new families and creating fear over what will happen if they do (Strickland, 2012).
History of abuse (cont):
There are a lot of different ways that children respond to sexual abuse, both emotionally and behaviorally. Children may experience high anxiety and distress, as exhibited by bed wetting, withdrawn or acting out behavior, nightmares, difficulty in school, and running away. They may also engage in repetitive sexual talk and play, age-inappropriate sexual behavior, and fears of specific situations or people that remind them of the abuse (Cohen, Mannarino, & Deblinger, 2006). Children may engage in re-enactment, where they attempt to make sense of what was done to them by doing the same to other children.
Promiscuity is not uncommon in many of the older children that come home. This could be because of sexual attitudes in their culture, or it could be a result of prior boundary violations and the child does not realize they are allowed to say no. It may be the only currency they know how to use, and it likely has been useful for them in the past. In some countries, teens come home thinking of prostitution as a legitimate profession of choice. Some children may simply not understand what appropriate physical contact looks like. Understanding this and not being shocked by it are important for being able to speak truth to this topic.
Coping and Self-Stimulation:
While many of the concerning behaviors listed above may stem from inappropriate sexual exposure or contact, some children simply stumble upon masturbation as a way to self-soothe. Children who are left in cribs or not interacted with for long periods of time may discover masturbation. This behavior can become obsessive, sometimes being the only thing they know how to do in order to calm themselves down. Parents are understandably disturbed when a child comes home and masturbates compulsively for hours a day. The instinct is often to prohibit this behavior. However, this doesn’t help the situation. The child is in a particularly scary new environment and they are doing the only thing they know in order to feel better. In addition, it can create an adversarial relationship between the parent and child, disrupting attachment. New coping skills have to be introduced and practiced before this coping skill can be taken away.
Much of the previous paragraphs also apply to why children and teens could form the habit of pornography. Sexual behavior is addictive, especially when engaged outside of the boundaries God lays out for us in His word. Like any other addiction, it is a way to numb pain and feel better. It may have been discovered innocently at first, or it could have been introduced as a form of abuse.
Pornography is also a way for people to relate to a person that isn’t really there, providing them with a sense of protection from having to be vulnerable. A person on the screen cannot hurt them, but they are able to feel a form of intimacy that is controlled. It is not a genuine, healthy connection, but it may be all that they are capable of in that moment due to past relational trauma. It is easier in the moment, but will never truly satisfy the God-given need for connection.
HOW TO RESPOND TO SEXUAL ACTING OUT:
So what is to be done about all of this? How can parents lay out appropriate boundaries to protect all children and teens in the home, as well as themselves, while continuing to build a connection with your child? There are several ways to go about this.
Frame of Mind:
First, we have to understand that attachment parenting, no matter what specific topic is being addressed, is about a philosophy, not techniques (Pruett, 2016). It is less about what you do, though that is important, and more about your mindset, heart, and attitude while doing it. Let that guide every interaction with your child.
Additionally, there are many different wounds that we as adults carry regarding sexuality. It could be that we have misconceptions regarding sexuality in the church and what the Bible actually says regarding the topic. For others, there can be wounds of abandonment from parents who never addressed anything about sexuality, and were left to discover and learn about this area on their own, resulting in misinformation. Then there are the deeper, more obvious wounds of abuse. If you are seeking to adopt or foster, or if you have already, it is imperative that you explore your own sexual history and attitudes, allowing God to heal any wounds that might exist. What makes you uncomfortable about the child’s behavior? What thoughts and feelings go through your mind when you think about various scenarios regarding your child’s sexuality? What do you believe about yourself in relationship to these thoughts and behaviors? When is another time in your life when you felt that way? You will not be able to show your child Christ if you are responding out of your own wounds and fear. Seeking out professional help sooner rather than later will help you to heal more quickly. Having healthy attitudes about sexuality are imperative for guiding your teen through what is already a confusing time of life. Even more so when a child has been adopted or in foster care.
Winning their Hearts:
Christian families worry they are condoning their child’s sin if they are not immediately stopping the behavior. They desperately want their child to know Christ and seek to stop the sin as soon as they can. While yes, that is ultimately the goal, the focus has to remain on winning the child’s heart and creating felt safety for the child. A child who has had either an abusive father or an absent father likely will not have a concept for a loving heavenly or earthly father. They struggle to understand the abstract concept of God. When parents respond to sexual behavior out of fear, they inadvertently reinforce the negative self-image these children already have and create more distance in the relationship. The heart of God can best be taught to children and teens through experiences with a loving, earthly mother and father. These relationships are not without boundaries, yet love and acceptance of the child permeate though the behavior is not accepted. The focus, especially when newly home, has to be on winning the heart of the child through love and firm boundaries.
Consider the Need:
Keep in mind the desire to win our children’s hearts, stay connected with the hurt and pain that your child is experiencing. It is easy for parents to lose sight of why their child is acting out. When this happens, the child can be seen as evil or bad, and compassion flies out the window. What these wounded children need is empathy. Parents are often afraid that if they reflect the child’s feelings or fears back to them, they will cause the child more pain by bringing up painful topics. The reality is that your child is likely thinking about those things, anyway, and feel weird and isolated because of their experiences. When you reflect feelings and show empathy, you communicate to your child that you see them, you see their pain, and you aren’t afraid of it. It shows them that you are willing to go through hard things with them, that you are strong enough to be the support they need. These are the first steps toward building trust. For example a child responds with fear when approaching a bathroom. The parent might say, “Wow, the bathroom is a really scary place for you. I’m going to guess that maybe something scary has happened to you in the bathroom.” When your child discloses abuse, just listen. Reflect what you hear them say and what you would imagine their feelings are and were. Let them talk, but don’t push or ask lots of questions. Just make statements. Once they are finished, tell them that you are sorry that happened to them. If they are crying, with permission, hold them. Let them know that those types of interactions will not happen in your home.
Practical reminders and suggestions:
Safety Planning and Setting Boundaries:
To start, it is wise to set firm boundaries regarding sexual behavior, regardless of whether or not the child’s sexual history is known. Sexual safety contracts are a way to start this conversation and communicate to a child upfront what the sexual boundaries are. For example, parents can say, “In our home, sex is something that only takes place between mom and dad in our bedroom.” This should be adapted to be age appropriate and use language that the child is familiar with. For example, rather than saying sex, the parent might address body parts and how, when, and to who they should be exposed. Boundaries can be placed on where changing clothes will occur and who will be present at those times, who is allowed in different bedrooms, and more. For more instructions on how to set up a safety plan, please see the attached guide. Depending on the age of the child and their language development, it may be wise to have this typed up in both English and the child’s native language, be sure to go over this sheet with a trusted translator. This can boost your child’s feeling of security and help establish a sense of safety more quickly. Expect that they will test these boundaries. Stay firm, yet kind when that happens. Redirect without shaming, but do not let anything that you have set as a boundary slide.
Masturbation can also be addressed through a safety contract. While the desire might be for there not to be masturbation at all, that may not be a realistic desire at first. As relationships with family and friends grow and become healthier, generally the need for masturbation decreases. However, parameters can be placed on when and where masturbation can take place. For example, it can be placed into the contract that masturbation can happen within the confines of their bedroom with the door closed or in the bathroom with the door closed, communicating to them that masturbation is a private activity, when there is a need for it to take place. This is another opportunity to express empathy, letting the child know that you realize this will be a difficult activity to stop. For example, a parent might say, “I know that this is probably a way that you’ve found to help yourself feel better in the past. In our home, we prefer to do other things like talking to mom and dad. However, we know that this may not be an easy thing for you to stop right away. When you do feel like this is something you need to do, here are places in which you can do this.” Simultaneously, help the child to build awareness for things that are triggering them to feel the need to masturbate. Some children do that when they feel sad, anxious, or afraid. Help them to understand this without shame, and then work to develop more adaptive coping skills. This is another great time to use empathy. It is okay to say to a child, “That feels really good. I bet it helps you feel better when you are stressed. Did you know there are other things that will help you feel better? I wonder if you can try (telling mom, asking for a hug, going for a walk, etc).” As comfort in talking to your child about sexuality grows, this is a great avenue for helping them to understand the purpose of sexuality as God designed it.
Know State Laws:
When bringing home a child, it may be wise to call your county Child Protective Services (CPS) office ahead of time to talk through concerns. They exist to partner in protecting children, and every state is different in how they go about doing this. Many families fear that a call will immediately result in children being placed into foster care. However, most CPS agencies find themselves short on resources and do not want to remove children who are not in danger. They can be a good source for finding resources, though services and policies vary by county and state. It is also important for you to be aware of child safety laws in your state. If something happens between your children or your child and another child outside of the home, you need to know how to deal with that. Understanding the process ahead of time will help you know what to do when you are overwhelmed in the moment. Being proactive shows the CPS office that you are aware and active in protecting your child and other children, and they may be able to connect you with resources. It will also help you to be more comfortable if the time comes where you do have to file a report of inappropriate sexual contact with CPS.
Implementing Preventative Safeguards:
In knowing that there is potential for a child to perpetrate on other children in the home, it is important to set safeguards in place. Alarms for doors are available, as well as various video monitoring systems. For the internet and media devices, have a plan in place to monitor and limit online behavior. Include appropriate online behavior in your safety contract and spell out expectations ahead of time. If something questionable happens, either directed toward a parent or a child, natural consequences should result. For example, if a male teen makes sexual advances toward his adoptive mother and persists after having been corrected, he has lost the privilege of being alone with his adoptive mother for a period of time. He can still spend time with her, but not alone. If a child is found acting out sexually with other children, especially of differing ages, then boundaries keeping that child close to a parent and not playing unsupervised have been lost until the child has regained trust. The child is loved and accepted, but the behavior is not permitted to continue. Again, boundaries stay firm.
Practical reminders and suggestions:
Some resources available to help parents monitor what their children are consuming in regards to media include:
Circle by Disney
Loving children with sexual reactivity can be challenging, but it can also be extremely rewarding. Sexuality is a healthy part of who God has made us to be, though His plan for sexuality has been perverted by the world. When dealing with this topic, take a deep breath, and ask God to show you His truth and love. Ask Him for compassion, understanding and wisdom, and above all, remember that He does not give us a spirit of fear. He can handle anything your child throws at you, and you can, too, with His help. Don’t be afraid to call your worker and ask for advice and referrals to professional counselors in your area.
When in doubt, be empathetic! Stay calm, and don’t respond with shaming statements. Seek to understand what is driving the behavior, and seek the Lord in how to respond.
Written by: Angela Mains, MA, LPC
Finkelhor, D. (2010). Sexually Victimized Children. Simon and Schuster.
Judith A Cohen, A. P. (2006). Treating Trauma and Traumatic Grief in Children and Adolescents. New York: Guilford.
NCTSN. (2016). National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN).
Pruett, M. (2016). Adult Attachment. Birmingham, AL: Lifeline Children’s Services.
Secretary-General, U. N. (2006, October 11). United Nations Secretary-General’s Report on Violence against Children. Retrieved from Violence Against Children: http://www.unviolencestudy.org/
Strickland, L. (2012, June). Sexual Abuse: A look at Signs and How to Help Children Heal. Birmingham, AL: Lifeline Children’s Services.
__________ FAMILY SEXUAL SAFETY PLAN
This agreement is designed to keep everyone safe in this family. All the members in this family have signed this agreement. It lists the rules for living together safely in this family, for respecting the rights of others, and for ensuring the personal safety of everyone. Our signatures on the bottom acknowledge that these rules have been discussed as a family, that we understand these rules, that we will follow them, and that we will help each other to follow these rules.
I understand that there is no reason for me to go into another person’s bedroom (except for parent).
I understand that if no one is home I will not enter another person’s bedroom. I will not go through their things.
I understand that if my foster parent(s) talk with me in my bedroom, the door must be open.
I understand that undressing is allowed only in my bedroom and in the bathroom with the door closed.
I will dress appropriately around the house. I will always wear a robe or a tee-shirt over my underclothes. I will not walk around with just underclothes or shorts without a tee-shirt.
If the door is closed, I understand that there is to be only one person in the bathroom at one time. Specific exceptions to this item are as follows: ________________________________
I understand that everyone sleeps in his/her own bed.
I understand that children do not sleep in the same bedroom with the foster parents. (Children 0-1 may sleep in the bedroom with foster parents.) Sleeping arrangements while traveling will be discussed with the caseworker prior to the trip.
I understand that a child six years of age or older will not share a bed or a bedroom with a person of the opposite sex.
I understand there is to be no sexual contact or sexual touching between children in this family or between parents and children in this family. The only individuals who have sex together in this home are mom and dad and always with the door closed.
I understand that there will be no sexual play and sexual touching and that includes playing doctor, nurse, or things like that.
I understand that all inappropriate sexualized language (references to body parts, sexual activity) and sexualized behaviors will not be permitted.
I understand that all physical touching between family members must be kept safe and be seen as safe touching. Touching that will not confuse, scare, or make me think that someone wants to have sex with me includes: ______________________________________________
(Back rubs, foot tickling, wrestling, “horse play”, etc. are to be discouraged.)
I understand that children will not have access to or bring into the home any inappropriate sexually oriented materials (books, pictures, magazines, videos, Internet access etc.). Only material appropriate for sex education will be permitted.
I understand there is to be no showing or touching of one’s private parts in front of other people.
I understand that my body belongs to me and if anyone touches me in a sexual way or makes me feel uncomfortable, I will say, “No,” and will tell my caseworker and/or someone “safe”, e.g. school counselor, coach, therapist, teacher, etc.
I will follow these rules of privacy, e.g. no touching of another’s private parts, purses, notebooks, private notes, diaries, no opening another’s mail, etc.
__________ FAMILY SEXUAL SAFETY PLAN
I understand that any plans for me to baby-sit in or outside the home must be discussed with and approved by the family and the caseworker.
I understand that all family members are responsible for following these rules.
I understand that I am responsible if I do not follow these rules.
I understand these rules clearly.
Signed ____________________________ Date__________
(Siblings, if applicable)
Wayne D. Duehn, Ph.D.
University of Texas Arlington