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Can child sexual abuse also involve a child abusing another child?

FAQ Category:
Children's Behaviors

YES. More than a third of those who sexually abuse children are under the age of 18 themselves (1). 

In many instances, especially with younger children, the child may not understand that his or her forceful sexual actions toward another child are harmful. For this same reason, we often use the language sexually harmful behaviors rather than calling an incident sexually abusive. Besides helping to further demarcate the difference between children’s and adult’s sexual behaviors, this label of sexual abuse is best left to specialized professionals making clinical and legal assessments. 

Although children can never consent to any sexual activity, we do recognize that there are some sexual behaviors that are developmentally expected and appropriate between children. However, there are other times when a child engages in behavior that involves force, coercion, threats, a significant difference in age, stature, power, developmental ability, or mature sexual acts, which would indicate that the sexual behavior is inappropriate and potentially harmful.

Although some children who harm others have been victimized in some way themselves, many children who engage in sexually harmful behaviors have not experienced abuse (2). There are many factors that influence a child’s sexual behavior including impulse control disorders, exposure to mature material, disability, and even other co-occurring stressors within the home, environment, or family context. For more information, we encourage you to check out our guidebook called Do Children Sexually Harm Other Children?

Children and adolescents are not just small adults, and when warranted, their sexually harmful behaviors are treated with different clinical interventions than adult offenders; but specialized treatment is important for youth with sexual problem behaviors. After completing treatment, youth who have sexually harmed another child do not typically continue to engage in sexually abusive behavior; only about 7% of these youths commit a new sexual offense (3). 

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(1) Finkelhor, David, and Anne Shattuck. “Characteristics of Crimes Against Juveniles.” Crimes Against Children Research Center, May 2012, www.unh.edu/ccrc/pdf/CV26_Revised%20Characteristics%20of%20Crimes%20against%20Juveniles_5-2-12.pdf

(2) Bonner BL, Walker CE, Berliner L. Children with Sexual Behavior Problems: Assessment and Treatment. Final report, grant no. 90-CA-1469. Washington, DC: Administration of Children, Youth, and Families, Department of Health and Human Services; 1999.

(3) Adolescents Who Have Engaged in Sexually Abusive Behavior: Effective Policies and Practices. ATSA, 30 Oct. 2012, www.atsa.com/adolescents-engaged-in-sexually-abusive-behavior.