Vol. 10, No. 2 • May 2006

Addressing Difficult Behaviors in Children Who Have Been Sexually Abused

There are common behaviors of sexually abused children that frustrate and embarrass many caregivers. Excessive masturbating in public, lack of boundaries, and sexually playing with toys are a few of these behaviors.

These are "learned" behaviors and can be replaced with more appropriate ones if patiently taught by caring foster or adoptive parents. But this isn't one person's job: it is the treatment team's responsibility to do this together.

Caregivers want to help children feel safe, not over-controlled and not guilty. One way to do this is to be friendly but clear with your household rules. Develop a plan that spells out how to live in your home. Don't assume children know these things. Write it down and give a copy to your social worker so he or she is aware of how your family functions. This can be helpful if anyone questions your life-style.

Note: Rules are developed only when there is a need. For example, masturbation is a reaction to be being sexually stimulated (abused). Babies touch themselves as infants. It is a natural action. It can become an excessive need for a child who has been sexually stimulated over a long time period. It can show up when the child is insecure, deep in thought, or needing to be stroked (much like a child who gently pulls on their hair or sucks their thumb). Many times, the child isn't aware of what he or she is doing. Instead of yelling or shaming the child, establish guidelines for children if they find they need to "touch themselves."

Suggested Guidelines: Must be alone with door shut and shades closed, don't cause pain or bleeding, no objects can be used, time alone is limited to 15 minutes. Add the guidelines you feel are important. Then give children opportunity to develop self-esteem and other interests. Their need to masturbate will lessen.

Adapted from Fostering the Child Who Has Been Sexually Abused, by Donna Foster <http://ssw.unc.edu/fcrp/fp/fp_vol5no1/fostering_sexually_abused.htm>

Copyright 2006 Jordan Institute for Families