Sexual Behaviours in young children Normal versus not Normal
As a parent, you may be perfectly comfortable talking with your child about the differences between right and wrong. But talking with them about their private parts and sexual development is not always so easy.
Seeing what may appear to be “sexual” behaviours in your young child may be especially distressing. You may worry that these behaviours are odd, deviant or a sign of sexual victimization.
In fact, “sexual” behaviours in children are common, especially between about 3 to 6 years old. Usually, they are a normal part of development. Read on for information that can help you tell the difference between normal “sexual” behaviours and behaviours that may signal a problem.
Children’s natural curiosity about their bodies
At a very young age, children begin to explore their bodies. They may touch, poke, pull or rub their body parts, including their genitals. It is important to keep in mind that these behaviours are not sexually motivated. They typically are driven by curiosity and attempts at self-soothing.
Curiosity about bodies, and their differences, can also prompt children to try to look at others in states of undress, rub up against them and ask questions about genitals and toileting.
As children grow older, they will need guidance in learning about their body parts, their functions and appropriate social boundaries that surround them.
Examples of Sexual Behaviours in Children Aged 2 Through 6 Years
|Common behaviours||Less common behaviours||Uncommon behaviours in normal children||Rarely Normal|
|Touching/masturbating genitals in public or private||
Rubbing body against others
|Asking a peer or adult to engage in specific sexual act(s)||Any sexual behaviours involving children who are 4 or more years apart|
|Viewing or touching peer or a new sibling’s genitals||Trying to insert tongue in mouth while kissing||Inserting objects into genitals||A variety of
sexual behaviours displayed on a daily basis
|Showing genitals to peers||Touching a peer’s or an adult’s genitals||Explicit imitation of sexual intercourse||Sexual behaviour that results in emotional distress or physical pain|
|Standing/sitting too close||Crude mimic of movements associated with sexual acts||Touching animal genitals||Sexual behaviours associated with other physically aggressive behaviour|
|Tries to view peers or adult’s nude||Sexual behaviours that are occasional but persistent and disruptive to others||Sexual behaviours that are frequently disruptive to others||Sexual behaviours that involve coercion|
|Behaviours are transient, not very frequent and can be easily diverted||Behaviours are transient and moderately responsive to distraction||Behaviours that persist and are resistant to parental distraction||Behaviours are persistent and child becomes angry if distracted|
Is a child’s self-stimulation a sign sexual abuse?
Caregivers often assume that self-stimulatory behaviour such as masturbation must have been taught, suggesting that the child was sexually abused. This is not the case. Children simply find their genitals, recognize that stimulating them feels good and continue to engage in the behaviour.
What to do when these behaviours happen
In general, a young child’s “sexual” behaviours that are easily redirected and do not cause harm or distress are not a cause for concern. When these behaviours happen, it is important to stay calm and not become angry or upset. Instead, try to redirect your child’s attention. You might say something like, “It’s OK for you to touch your own body but you should do that in a private place.”
Sexual behaviour problems: red flags
Parents also need to know when a child’s sexual behaviour may be more than harmless curiosity and should be addressed by a professional. Sexual behaviour problems may pose a risk to the safety and well-being of your child and other children. They also can signal an underlying neuropsychiatric disorder, physical or sexual abuse or exposure to sexual content.
Sexual behaviour problems in young children include any act that:
- Is disruptive (they cannot focus on a task due to the behaviour)
- Occurs to the exclusion of other activities and cannot be redirected.
- Causes emotional or physical pain or injury to themselves or others.
- Is associated with physical aggression.
- Involves coercion or force.
- Simulates penetrative and/or adult sexual acts.
Teaching body safety & boundaries: 10 tips for parents
You can start to teach your child about body boundaries and safety as soon as they can talk. Here are some tips that can help:
- Use appropriate language. Teach children proper names for all body parts, including their genitals: penis, vagina, breasts, and buttocks. Making up names for body parts may give the impression that they are bad or a secret and cannot be talked about. Also, teach your child which parts are “private,” those usually covered by a swimsuit and should not be looked at or touched without their permission.
- Evaluate your family’s respect for modesty. Modesty isn’t a concept most young children can fully grasp. But you can still lay a foundation for future discussions and model good social boundaries. If you have kids of various ages, for example, teach your younger children to give older siblings their privacy if they request it.
- Don’t force affection. Do not force or guilt your children to give hugs or kisses. It is OK for them to tell even grandma or grandpa that they do not want to give them a kiss or a hug goodbye. Teach your child alternate ways to show affection and respect without close physical touch (high-fives, thumbs up, etc.) Reinforce that their body is theirs to control, a concept called body autonomy.
- Explain OK vs. not-OK touches. An “OK touch” is a way for people to show they care for and help each other—like when caregivers help with bathing or toileting, or when doctors check to make sure their body is healthy. Reassure your child that most touches are OK touches. A “not OK touch” is one they don’t like, hurts them, makes them feel uncomfortable, confused, scared or one that has anything to do with private parts.
- Reinforce that people should respect each other. Discuss how it is never OK for anyone to look at or touch their private parts without their permission. At the same time, they should not look at or touch other people’s bodies without their permission.
- Give your children a solid rule about inappropriate touches. It is easy for a child to understand the concept of a rule. This will make it easier for them to recognize a not-OK touch if one happens and say “NO” to these.
- Remind your child to always tell you or another trusted grown-up if anyone ever touches their private parts or makes them feel uncomfortable.
Inappropriate touching—especially by a trusted adult—can be very confusing to a child. Reassure your children that you will listen to and believe them if they tell you about not-OK touches.
- Control media exposure. Get to know the rating systems of video games, movies, and television shows and make use of parental controls available through many mobile, internet, cable, and satellite providers. Providing appropriate alternatives is an important part of avoiding exposure to sexual content in the media. Be aware that children may see adult sexual behaviours in person or on screens and may not tell you that this has occurred.
Review this information regularly with your children. Some good times to talk to your children about personal safety are during bath time, bedtime, doctor visits and before any new situation. Children meet and interact with many different adults and children every day—at childcare, sports practices, dance classes and after-school programs,
to name a few. Giving them tools to recognize and respond to uncomfortable situations is key.
Expect questions. The questions your child asks and the answers that are appropriate to give will depend on your child’s age and ability to understand. It is always important to tell the truth.
When & How to Talk with Your Child About Sex
Sexuality is part of every person’s life, no matter what the age. As your child grows and develops, they may giggle with friends about “private parts,” share “dirty” jokes and scan through dictionaries looking up taboo words. Their curiosity is natural, and children of all ages have questions. When they are ready to ask you, as a parent you should be ready to answer.
Answering your child’s questions about sex
First, find out what your child already knows. Let your child guide the talk with their questions. Some children may not ask for information if they think you might be uneasy with it. Others might test you by asking embarrassing questions. Talk openly, and let your child know they can ask you about anything.
When your child begins to ask questions about sex, here are some tips to help make it easier for both of you:
- Don’t laugh or giggle, even if the question is cute. Your child shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed for their curiosity.
- Keep your cool. Try not to appear overly embarrassed or serious about the matter.
- Be brief. Don’t go into a long explanation. Answer in simple terms. Your 4-year-old may not need to know the details of intercourse.
- Be honest. If they ask you should answer with accurate information. Use proper names for all body parts.
- Check if your child wants or needs to know more. Follow up your answers with, “Does that answer your question?”
- Listen to your child’s responses and reactions.
- Be patient and prepared to repeat yourself if needed.
If you are uneasy talking about sex or answering certain questions, be honest about that, too. Consider asking a relative, close family friend or your therapist to help talk to your child.
Common questions children ask about sex & sexuality
The questions your child asks and the appropriate answer to give will depend on your child’s age and ability to understand. Here are some of the issues your child may ask about and what they should know at each age and stage.
Preschool children – What they might ask:
- “Where do babies come from?”
- How did I get in your tummy?”
- “Where was I before I got in your tummy?”
- “How did I get out?”
- “How come girls don’t have a penis?”
What they should know:
18 months to 3 years old. At this age, children are starting to learn about their body and how it works. Teach your child the proper names for body parts. Making up names for body parts may give the idea that there is something bad or secret about those parts.
Also, teach your child which body parts are private and shouldn’t be looked at or touched without their permission. This includes parts that are covered by their swimsuit, for example, as well as their mouth. Likewise, teach your child that they must ask others and receive a verbal “yes” before touching them.
You can start talking about body autonomy—that they should not be forced into physical contact with anyone, regardless of their relationship. This can be difficult, since physical touch with relatives and close friends is a part of many cultures.
Recognize and support your child in situations when they may be uncomfortable with hugs and kisses. Give them alternatives such as waves or high-fives.
4 to 5 years of age.
Your child may begin to show an interest in basic sexuality, both their own and that of another sex. They may ask where babies come from or why male and female bodies are different. They may touch their own genitals and may even show an interest in the genitals of other children.
It’s important to know that these are not adult sexual activities, but signs of normal interest. However, your child needs to learn what is all right to do and what is not. Setting limits to exploration is important for teaching social boundaries.
Model body autonomy by asking your child if you can give them hugs or kisses. Respect their responses without making then feel shame or guilt.
School-age children – What they might ask:
- “How old do people have to be before they can have a baby?”
- “Why do erections happen?”
- “What is a period?”
- “How do people have sexual intercourse?”
- “Why do some men like other men?”
What they should know:
5 to 7 years of age. Your child is learning much more about how people get along with each other. They may become interested in what takes place sexually between adults.
Their questions will become more complex as they try to understand the connection between sexuality and making babies. They may come up with their own explanations about how the body works or where babies come from. They may also turn to their friends or the internet for answers.
It is important to help your child understand sexuality in a healthy way. Lessons and values they learn at this age will stay with them as an adult. It will encourage meaningful adult relationships later.
8 to 9 years of age.
Your child probably already has developed a sense of right and wrong. They are able to understand that sex is something that happens between two consenting people. They may begin to become interested in how caregivers met and fell in love.
As questions about romance, love and marriage arise, they may also ask about relationships. Use this time to discuss your family’s thoughts about LGBTQ or other non-traditional relationships. Explain that liking or loving someone does not depend on the person’s gender and is different from liking someone sexually.
At this age, your child will be going through many changes that will prepare them for puberty. As they become more and more aware of their sexuality, it is important that you talk to them about delaying sexual intercourse until they are older. You should also talk with them about consent for sexual activity.
This is also an appropriate age to start talking about contraception and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Be sure they understand how these diseases can spread and how they can protect themself from STIs and from pregnancy. Teaching your child to be sexually responsible is one of the most important lessons in their life.
Using teachable moments
Everyday events will give you plenty of chances to teach your child about topics related to sex. These are called teachable moments. For example, talking about body parts during bath time will be much more effective than talking about body parts during dinner. A pregnancy or birth in the family is a good time to discuss how babies are conceived and born. Watching television with your child may also be a good time to discuss sexuality issues.
Teachable moments can happen anywhere—while shopping, at the movies, or even at the park. Use them when they happen. You won’t need to make a speech.
Talking about sex and sexuality gives you a chance to share your knowledge, values, and beliefs with your child. Sometimes the topic or the questions may seem embarrassing, but your child needs to know there is always a reliable, honest source they can turn to for answers—you.