When Does a Teen's Sexual Behavior Signal a Serious Problem?

Know when to seek help for adolescent sexualized behavior
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Today’s highly sexualized world can often blur the line about what’s considered “normal” sexual behavior in adolescents. Unlimited access to online pornography, sexting, and sexualized media campaigns are just a few of the ways the digital world has changed teenage sexuality.

While most teens mature physically, emotionally and sexually at the same rate, some teens don’t. A teen who experiences intense sexual desires, yet hasn’t yet mastered impulse control, for example may exhibit some inappropriate sexualized behavior.

Of course there are many other risk factors that can lead to acts of sexual aggression, including inappropriate sexual contact with a sibling. A teen who was victimized during childhood is more likely to perpetrate on another child. Teens who aren't given appropriate sex education may also be more likely to violate others' boundaries.

Types of Sexualized Behavior

There’s a wide range of problematic sexual behaviors. The low end of the range starts with sexual harassment. A teen who tells inappropriate jokes after being told to stop, or one who makes unwelcome crude comments exhibits sexual harassment.

The most serious offenses include sexual assault. Behaviors on this end of the spectrum may lead to legal consequences. Teens who commit rape, for example, may face long-term involvement with juvenile justice system in terms of incarceration, probation, and court-ordered treatment.

When to Seek Help

Sometimes younger children “play doctor” or say things like, “Show me yours and I’ll show you mine.” When young children do those things, it often stems from their lack of knowledge about what’s appropriate and what isn’t.

Older children and teens know the difference.

While risky sexual behavior - like unprotected sex - can be very trouble, as long as both partners are able to give consent and are close in the same age, the sexual contact is considered normal. Problematic sexualized behavior occurs when the sexual contact is inappropriate.

If your teen exhibits sexually inappropriate behavior, take the issue seriously. Any time your teen’s behavior violates a moral, social, or legal rule, the behavior should be addressed by a professional.

Although there are instances where teens have sexually assaulted strangers, these types of incidents are fairly rare. Teenagers are more likely to exhibit inappropriate sexual behavior toward a teen or child they already know. Sometimes, sexual abuse among siblings occurs without parental knowledge.

Here are three things to consider to help you determine if your teen’s behavior signals a serious problem:

  • Age difference between the children. The bigger the age difference, the more likely a teen’s behavior should be considered problematic. While 4 year olds might engage in some exploratory behavior, a 14-year-old and a 4-year-old engaging in sexualized behavior is very serious violation. The bigger the age difference between the children, the more serious the offense.
  • Sexual behavior involves aggression. A teen who forces another child to do something he doesn’t want to do, the behavior should be taken very seriously. Holding another child down or coercing another child is a serious offense.
  • Exploitive or manipulative behavior. A teen should never make threats or bribe another child in an attempt to coerce them into sexual behavior.

Seek Help When Necessary

If your not sure if your teen’s behavior is a cause for concern, it’s best to err on the side of caution. It’s better to seek help and find out you don’t have anything to worry about, rather than regret not seeking treatment when it was necessary.

Discuss your concerns with your teen’s doctor or contact a mental health professional. Several factors will determine the type of treatment your teen may need – such as the risk factors that may have influenced your teen’s behavior and the risk your teen may pose to other children. A doctor or a mental health professional can provide referrals for an appropriate evaluation.

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