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Understanding and Addressing Problematic Sexual Behaviors among Children


Written by: Jason Jowers, MS, MFT

Cases involving problematic sexual behaviors (PSBs) among children can be challenging for clinicians and non-clinicians to navigate. Clinicians are often working with the family or families involved, including parents and caregivers, but may also need to work with non-clinicians within the school systems the children are in. Addressing problematic sexual behaviors among children also has an added layer when cases take place or involve Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) schools, which in turn gets the Family Advocacy Program (FAP) and the Child and Youth Advocacy Program (CYAP) within the Dept. of Defense involved to provide or coordinate services for families or individuals impacted by PSBs.

These cases can be multi-layered, in which clinicians are therapeutically working with children who exhibit PSBs, and other children who are impacted by these behaviors. It can be extra challenging for a non-clinician, like a teacher, principal, coach, or anyone who doesn’t have formal clinical training, to identify and address PSBs that are occurring among the children they directly teach or work with. As important as it is for clinicians, whether they are in a mental health setting or medical setting, to understand and address PSBs, it is just as important for non-clinicians to be aware of and be able to help mitigate the harmful effects of PSBs among children.

Helping Non-Clinicians Identify and Address Problematic Sexual Behaviors Among Children

To identify PSBs among children you first have to define it. “Problematic sexual behavior in children and youth is defined as behavior initiated by children and youth under the age of 18 that involves using sexual body parts in a manner that is developmentally inappropriate or potentially harmful to the individual or individuals impacted by the behavior” (Military OneSource, 2022). Identification of PSB among children is crucial for non-clinicians because they are in everyday settings with kids in the school systems or after-school functions and may be the first adults to notice this type of behavior taking place.

To help non-clinical staff identify and address PSBs among children, a Penn State research team within the Clearinghouse for Military Family Readiness, partnered with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to develop a non-clinical referral tool to “create a framework for supervising professionals to make appropriate well-informed decisions about handling PSBs, and support and encourage consultations with the DoD experts on child behavior.” (Penn State Social Science Research Institute, 2023). The referral tool includes a step-by-step procedure for staff members to follow which includes:

  • Gathering demographic information (sex, age, grade, educational support plans).
  • Descriptions of the exhibited behaviors, who observed or was made aware of the behavior, if adult intervention took place, and how the exhibiting or impacted child reacted.
  • A sexual behaviors guide that helps non-clinicians determine if the sexual behavior is considered normal, cautionary, or problematic.

If the behavior is deemed cautionary or problematic, there is a series of eight questions for the non-clinician to answer. These questions help determine if it is a severe or problematic case that requires a referral to DoD experts or clinical staff. This easy-to-follow referral guide is a great tool that can provide structure for non-clinicians in how to respond to situations of PSBs among children.

OneOp Sexual Behavior in Children and Youth Series and SBCY Courses

To further help clinicians, families, and all of those impacted by PSBs among children, OneOp has an ongoing Sexual Behavior in Children and Youth (SBCY) Series. This series includes 15 on-demand webinars on various topics related to working with children and PSB, as well as a 4-part online course series that showcases assessment and treatment processes for clinicians working with a DoD and civilian framework. The information within this series is a great start for clinicians and non-clinicians alike to help mitigate the trauma effects of PSBs among children.


Military OneSource (2022). “FAQ and Resource Guide for Parents and Caregivers: Problematic Sexual Behavior in Children and Youth.” Retrieved from: https://www.militaryonesource....-children-and-youth/

Penn State Social Science Research Institute (2023). “Helping non-clinical staff identify problematic sexual behaviors among children.” Retrieved from:

Blog Post Image: Pexels [Teacher Teaching Students, photo by Max Fischer, Aug. 20, 2020, CC0]

Jason M. Jowers

Co-Principal Investigator, OneOp

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This technology is supported in part by New Technologies for Ag Extension (funding opportunity no. USDA-NIFA-OP-010186), grant no. 2023-41595-41325 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Extension Foundation. For more information, please visit You can view the terms of useat

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