CHILD SEXUAL DEVELOPMENT:
INFORMATION FOR PARENTS AND CAREGIVERS
Some sexual behaviors in children are a natural part of child development. Children are curious about their own bodies and those of other children and adults. Sexual behaviors in children will depend on their age and development. Any sexual behaviors in children tend to make parents and other adults very uncomfortable.
Children are naturally curious. They need to learn about their own bodies. It is natural for children to explore their bodies.
Children also need to learn how to act with others. They need to learn the social and cultural rules needed to respect other people’s personal space and other people’s bodies.
How do I know what is normal or natural?
How do you know if a child’s sexual behavior is natural or if it is a cause for concern? When is a child’s sexual behavior a problem? It is a problem if it causes harm to the child or another person.
This information is designed to help you to better understand and respond to sexual behavior in children.
When should you be concerned?
- Your child’s behaviors seem unusual or are not typical of a child’s developmental stage.
- A young child is often curious about what an adult or other child’s genitals look like, but it is not usual for the child to try to kiss them.
- Your child’s behavior involves any type of force or threat. Remember, a child’s threat may seem harmless, but any use of threat is concerning.
- A child tells a sibling or playmate, “If you don’t let me touch you, I will tell Mom you kicked the dog.”
- You become aware of sexual behavior between an older child and a much younger child.
- An 11 year-old child is playing “doctor” with a 3 year-old child.
- The behavior is potentially harmful to the child.
- A child inserts a toy or other object into another child’s genital or rectal areas.
- A child continues behavior that is clearly upsetting to another child.
- The child won’t stop touching a child even though the other child is crying and obviously upset.
- A child is overly focused on a sexual behavior, including avoiding other childhood activities.
- A child prefers to stay in their room and touch themselves than play with other children or interact with other family members. Efforts to distract the child and encourage to do something else do not work.
What do I do when I see my child engage in sexual behaviors?
If you see your child engage in sexual behaviors, it is important to avoid overreacting. Scolding or yelling at your child can make them feel ashamed about normal behavior and to hide their behavior. It is better to talk with your child calmly.
- Is your child curious? Help them to understand their bodies, including knowing the names of body parts and what parts are private.
- Even if the behavior is natural, it may be not be appropriate for public or social settings. Help your child to learn the difference between public and private behavior. It will help them to learn social rules, to interact with other children and adults in appropriate ways, and to fit into school and other social settings.
- It is important to teach your children about sexual behaviors so that they can learn appropriate rules.
Sexual Behavior Rules for Children
- It is NOT okay to show your private parts to other people.
- It is NOT okay to look at other people’s private parts.
- It is NOT okay to touch other people’s private parts.
- It is OK to touch your private parts in private, but not for a long time.
- It is NOT okay to use sexual language.
- It is NOT okay to make other people uncomfortable with sexual language or sexual behaviors like looking or touching.
- It is NOT okay to keep secrets about looking at private parts or about touching. It is NOT okay to force another child to keep a secret about touching. (You can use the idea of secrets to help a child see the difference between a doctor’s exam and inappropriate touching.)
Does sexual behavior indicate my child has been abused?
Some children who are sexually abused will exhibit sexual behaviors. But you should not assume your child has been abused if your child has sexual behaviors, especially natural, normal behaviors. Any one sign, including concerning children’s sexual behaviors do not indicate or prove abuse. If your child tells you that they were touched by an older child or adult, an investigation needs to be conducted. Contact local law enforcement (911) or the child abuse hotline (1-800-342-3720).
What should I do?
Most children’s sexual behaviors are not cause for concern. However, if you would like help or if you are still worried after talking with your child and trying to direct your child’s behavior, it may help to talk with a professional. Your child’s doctor or a counselor at school may be able to provide advice and support. If you are still concerned, you may want to reach out to a children’s mental health professional.
SOURCES AND RESOURCES
American Academy of Pediatrics https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/preschool/Pages/Sexual-Behaviors-Young-Children.aspx
National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth www.ncsby.org
National Child Traumatic Stress Network https://www.nctsn.org/resources/understanding-and-coping-sexual-behavior-problems-children-information-parents-and
Stop It Now www.stopitnow.org