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Is my 10 year-old son's sexual behavior a cause for concern?

Question: 

Dear Stop It Now!, 

My 10 year old put a 4 year old's penis in his mouth. When I asked him why, he said he wanted to know what it felt like. When I asked him if he knew that he violated the little boy, he said no. I asked him if he knew it was wrong and why, he said its wrong because people are not supposed to put penises in their mouths. The child's mother is freaking out and thinks my son is a sexual predator. My son did not tell the little boy not to tell. He also has never done it before. All the children involved don't seem to be bothered (there was an 8 year old in the room as well who did not engage in the activity). My son says he understands that he cannot do that again and he said he does not want to put a penis in his mouth again because he didnt like it.

Response: 
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Dear Concerned Parent,

Thanks for reaching out to Stop It Now!. It’s great that you’re paying attention, and that you’ve begun speaking with your son about this. You ask if this is concerning and I want to let you know that, yes, this is as concerning as when a child breaks any other safety rule---like bullying a friend, lying, or stealing from a store. So it is something that definitely requires follow-up, supervision, and clarification of safety rules. One isolated instance doesn’t indicate that your son is a “sexual predator”, as this other parent fears---kids do make mistakes when they are acting out of curiosity. But intervening now is important, as your son can learn safer behaviors which will serve him well for the rest of his life. 

Age Appropriate vs Concerning Sexual Play
Many parents wonder about How To Recognize Concerning Behavior Between Children. Even though exploratory sexual play is normal for both of these children, the reasons why a four year old or a ten year old would choose to explore in this way are very different. This is because your son and this child are at different developmental levels. There is a large age gap, six years, between them and they are coming from remarkably different perspectives as a result. Your son has much more experience to draw from, and even without explicit coercion, he does have more power than a four year old because he has more knowledge. Play like this enforces the message, “It is safe to play this way with others”, and of course, that isn’t accurate. 

This incident could certainly be a result of your son’s curiosity, as he explained. According to our Age-Appropriate Behaviors tip sheet, children your son’s age do become “more experimental with sexual behaviors”. A ten year old putting his mouth on someone else’s genitals is an infrequent behavior for his age group, but kids can follow through on things they’re wondering about in lots of different ways. I’m glad to hear that this was a first-time incident, and it doesn’t seem like you have any other concerns about his behaviors.

Identifying Warning Signs
However, I do recommend that you review both Warning Signs of Possible Sexual Abuse In A Child's Behaviors and Signs A Child Is At-Risk to Harm Another Child. As you review these tip sheets of warning signs, please be aware that a singular sign doesn’t mean that your son was either abused or is harming other children. You want to pay attention to repetitive and patterned behavior.

In fact, how your son responds to the limits you communicated to him will tell you a lot about his risk to others. Typically, children will respond to adult’s limits about serious safety rules, and it’s when they ignore these rules that we increase our concern. If you do identify other warning signs in your son’s behavior, then you might want to consider consulting with a counselor who specializes in working with children.

Safety Planning
Moving forward, keep talking with your son about your family’s Safety Plan. Safety planning involves Talking To Children in the home about healthy sexuality, consent, respect, and the rules about appropriate behavior and privacy. Many parents have told us that they had talked to their child about what to do if someone touches them inappropriately but they never talked to their own child about his or her own behavior. Safety planning addresses both children and adult’s behaviors, creating an environment of both open communication and clear expectations. Safety rules operate like any other rule so that if your son were to break any rule you most likely would educate, redirect, and then give a consequence. Your son’s consequence right now, really, is increased supervision when he is around peers and younger children. This way, there is always an adult around to intervene if any other concerning behaviors arise during play. Certainly, continue to let him know that he is a good kid and that you of course love and support him.

Additionally, I’m wondering what other questions about bodies and sexual behaviors your son might have. We want to make sure that he has a safe place to ask questions and explore any concerns he has. This resource guide on Healthy Sexual Development is a good place to start in gathering resources that feel comfortable for your family’s values, and that you can share with your son. There are many other great resources both online and in books that are specific to your son’s age. He might benefit from having access to resources like this that you approve of. 

Communicating with the Other Parent
I understand why this other child’s parent is upset, and you may want to let them know that you’re taking this very seriously. Consider talking with them about how you’re learning all that you can about children’s sexual behaviors, establishing strong safety rules, and increasing supervision for when your son plays with other children.  Let these parents know about your safety plan, and that you are open to continuing to talk about how you all can work together to keep children safe.

Notifying CPS
One suggestion we have made to parents in the past in similar situations as yourself is to call your local Child Protection Services. Tell them what occurred between the two children, and that you are taking it seriously and helping your son to learn safe and healthy behaviors. Then ask them if there is anything else that you should be doing. Typically, CPS does not pursue cases when both children are under 12 but if you are concerned that the 4 year old’s parents may be thinking about pursuing a report of sexual abuse, taking this first step can go a long way in making sure that your son is treated fairly. 

Take care,
Stop It now!

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Last edited on: March 26th, 2019