The Sexualization of Children: What’s a Clinician to Do?
Five-year-old Johnny’s mother comes in for an emergency assessment because his daycare provider discovered him alone in the bathroom with another child his age: they both had their pants down and were comparing their “thingies”. Anna’s foster parent is angry: the eleven-year-old was caught viewing pornography on her tablet, showing it to a younger foster child in the home. The foster mom calls Anna a deviant and wants her out of her home. Both parents are shocked and dismayed at these behaviors: are they deviants destined to become sexual predators? These scenarios have become more common, and the children are younger with sexual behaviors more sophisticated and aberrant than ever before. What is going on here? And what is a clinician to do?
Childhood is being sexualized. The Internet brings the world directly to our children via their phones, tablets, laptops and televisions. Children have more media exposure than ever before. Companies aim their media space at children, hoping to capture their ever increasing discretionary income. The advertising industry uses sex to sell products regardless of the audience’s age. In the 2003 study of children’s exposure to media, Kaiser Family Foundation found that 36% of children under six years of age live in households where the TV is always on, and 43% of young children have a TV in their room. The exposure is even more profound for children 8 to 18 years: Kaiser’s 2010 study discovered that youth are engaged in over 7.5 hours of media daily, including watching TV, playing games, listening to music and using computers. That’s almost a full time job! What children experience on media is impactful: women are portrayed as hyper-sexual objects to be used, and innocent word searches can lead to pornographic images. This is well beyond a child’s ability to comprehend. And then children do what children do best: they act out confusing, interesting, attention-getting or pleasurable behaviors in play, spreading sexual behaviors like a virus among our youth. Exposure to sexually explicit media and living in highly sexualized environments contributes to childhood sexual behavior problems. So what is a clinician to do? The TLC model offers important guidance:
- Assessment is critical. In addition to the typical information gathered at assessment, it is important to understand the child’s trauma history, how the family has addressed the sexual behavior problems and the child’s response to adults’ interventions. Assessment of family values, attitudes and feelings regarding sex and sexuality can reveal familial cultural norms. Understanding normative versus non-normative sexual behaviors will help clinicians to make recommendations for treatment. Assessment tools, such as the Child Sexual Behavior Inventory (CSBI), can reveal non-normative behaviors. Ongoing assessment throughout the treatment process is necessary in revealing long held secrets.
- Psychoeducation with parents and children will help. Talking about sexual behavior and development does not come naturally for most people. Clinicians need education and supervision to better cope with their own discomfort in dealing with youths’ sexual issues. Parents need education about normative development, how to set expectations for children’s behaviors, and how to make a safety plan to reduce inappropriate acting out in order to create safe, non-sexualized environments. Clinicians can coach and model healthy, caring responses for parents so children are not further traumatized, driving their behaviors even deeper into secrecy. Psychoeducation aimed at children helps them to understand how their sexualized behaviors are connected to past trauma or exposure to sexual content.
- Sexualized Behaviors can be reduced and processed using SITCAP techniques. The TLC tenets of working with trauma survivors are important here – safety and self-regulation first. The drawing prompt of “This is where I feel the sexual feelings” can increase body awareness of triggers, normalizing associated behaviors and allowing for better self-regulation to reduce sexually acting out behaviors. Drawing “This is what happened” can inspire disclosure and processing of the sexualized events experience by youth. The scaling activity “This Is How Big the Feeling Is” can help determine the intensity, frequency and duration of the sexualized feelings and show progress when used periodically during treatment. When youth are reluctant to or unable to address the sexualized experiences directly, using the themes of trauma can help youth to safely investigate their feelings and experiences.
Media will continue to influence our children and shape their beliefs, values and behaviors. As clinicians, we hold an important key to encouraging the families we meet to live healthy and happy lives.
Note: Judy is currently working on adapting her current training Childhood Problem Sexual Behavior to TLC’s online training format. Watch for this in the near future.
Gill, Eliana and Shaw, Jennifer. Working with Children with Sexual Behavior Problems. New York: Guilford Press, 2014.
Generation M2 Media in the Lives of 8 to 18 Year Olds. A Kaiser Family Foundation Study, January 2010. https://kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/8010.pdf
About Judith Lester
Judy has a Master of Social Work Degree from the Ohio State University, and is a licensed independent social worker supervisor in the state of Ohio. Judy is an Advanced Certified Trauma Practitioner and Certified Agency Trainer for TLC. She is a Registered Play Therapist and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultant. Judy leads an innovative team of social workers as the Treatment Director for SAFY Behavioral Health, providing play therapy, trauma treatment and other therapeutic mental health intervention services to children, their families and adults in west central Ohio. Judy has developed three TLC trainings and has presented trainings to mental health professionals, teachers, early childhood professionals, foster parents and community members in an effort to create more trauma informed communities.
To schedule a training or consultation, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.Read Judith Lester’s Bio