Sexual Development and Behavior in Children – Info for Parents, and All Those Who Love Them!
Updated: Sep 1, 2020
Your five-year-old daughter is playing in her room with a couple of neighbor friends. You hear a lot of giggling and squealing. When you open the door to check on the kids, you find them sitting on the floor with their undies off, pointing at and touching each other’s genitals.
What do you do?
Every day, parents around the world are faced with situations like this. Being caught off-guard by young children’s self-exploration and curiosity about body parts and sexual issues is one of the uncomfortable realities of parenting, and can raise a host of troubling questions, such as, “Is my child normal?” “Should I be worried?” “What should I say?”
Although talking with children about bodily changes and sexual matters may feel awkward, providing children with accurate, age-appropriate information is one of the most important things parents can do to make sure children grow up safe, healthy, and secure in their bodies.
Like all forms of human development, sexual development begins at birth. Sexual development includes not only the physical changes that occur as children grow, but also the sexual knowledge and beliefs they come to learn and the behaviors they show.
Any given child’s sexual knowledge and behavior is strongly influenced by:
■ The child’s age (1-3)
■ What the child observes (including the sexual behaviors of family and friends (4)
■ What the child is taught (including cultural and religious beliefs concerning sexuality and physical boundaries)
Very young and preschool-aged children (four or younger) are naturally immodest, and may display open—and occasionally startling–curiosity about other people’s bodies and bodily functions, such as touching women’s breasts, or wanting to watch when grown-ups go to the bathroom. Wanting to be naked (even if others are not) and showing or touching their genitals while in public are also common in young children. They are curious about their own bodies and may quickly discover that touching certain body parts feels nice.
As children age and interact more with other children (approximately ages 4–6), they become more aware of the differences between boys and girls, and more social in their exploration. In addition to exploring their own bodies through touching or rubbing their genitals (the term adults use is “masturbation”), they may begin “playing doctor” and copying adult behaviors such as kissing and holding hands.
As children become increasingly aware of the social rules governing sexual behavior and language (such as the importance of modesty or which words are considered “naughty”), they may try to test these rules by using these words. They may also ask more questions about sexual matters, such as where babies come from, and why boys and girls are physically different. It's helpful if the adults are aware of what questions may rise up beforehand. For more on what children typically do at different stages , see Table 1 below.)
Table 1: COMMON SEXUAL BEHAVIORS/CURIOSITIES IN CHILDHOOD
Preschool children (less than 4 years)
■ Exploring and touching their genitals, in public and in private
■ Rubbing their genitals (with hand or against objects)
■ Showing their genitals to others
■ Trying to touch mother’s or other women’s breasts
■ Removing clothes and wanting to be naked
■ Attempting to see other people when they are naked or undressing (in the bathroom, for example a)
■ Asking questions about their own—and others’—bodies and bodily functions
■ Talking to children their own age about bodily functions such as “poop” and “pee”
Young Children (approximately 4-6 years)
■ Purposefully touching or pleasuring their genitals, occasionally in the presence of others
■ Attempting to see other people when they are naked or undressing
■ Mimicking dating behavior (such as kissing, or holding hands)
■ Talking about their genitals and using “naughty” words, even when they don’t understand the meaning
■ Exploring genitals with children their own age (such as “playing doctor”, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” etc.)
School-Aged Children (approximately 7-12 years)
■ Purposefully touching/pleasuring their genitals (masturbation), usually in private
■ Playing games with children their own age that involves sexual behavior (such as “truth or dare”, “playing family,” or “boyfriend/girlfriend”)
■ Attempting to see other people naked or undressing
■ Looking at pictures of naked or partially naked people
■ Viewing/listening to sexual content in media (television, movies, games, the Internet, music, etc.)
■ As they move closer to 12, may want more privacy (for example, not wanting to undress in front of other people) and being reluctant to talk to adults about sexual issues
■ Beginnings of sexual attraction to/interest in peers
Once children enter grade school (approximately ages 7–12), their awareness of social rules increases and they become more modest and want more privacy, particularly around adults. Although self-pleasuring (masturbation) and sexual play continue, children at this age are likely to hide these activities from adults. Curiosity about adult sexual behavior increases—particularly as puberty approaches—and children may begin to seek out sexual content in television, movies, internet and printed material. Telling jokes and “dirty” stories is common.
Children approaching puberty are likely to start displaying romantic and sexual interest in their peers. (For more, see Table 1 above.) Although parents often become concerned when a child shows sexual behavior, such as touching another child’s genitals, these behaviors are not uncommon in developing children. Most sexual play is an expression of a child’s natural curiosity and should not be a cause for concern or alarm.
In general, “typical” childhood sexual play and exploration:
■ Occurs between children who play together regularly and know each other well
■ Occurs between children of the same general age and physical size
■ Is spontaneous and unplanned
■ Is infrequent
■ Is voluntary (the children agreed to the behavior, none of the involved children seem uncomfortable or upset)
■ Is easily diverted when parents tell children to stop and explain privacy rules.
Some childhood sexual behaviors indicate more than harmless curiosity and are considered sexual behavior problems. Sexual behavior problems may pose a risk to the safety and well-being of the child and other children. (For more on this topic, see the National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s fact sheet, Understanding and Coping with Sexual Behavior Problems in Children: Information for Parents and Caregivers at http://nctsn.org/nctsn_assets/pdfs/caring/sexualbehaviorproblems.pdf)
Sexual behavior problems include any act that:
■ Is clearly beyond the child’s developmental stage (for example, a three-year-old attempting to kiss an adult’s genitals)
■ Involves threats, force, or aggression
■ Involves children of widely different ages or abilities (such as a 12-year-old “playing doctor” with a four-year-old)
■ Provokes strong emotional reactions in the child—such as anger or anxiety
(4) The National Child Traumatic Stress Network www.NCTSN.org
Responding to Sexual Behaviors
Situations like the one described at the beginning of this post can be unsettling for parents. However, these situations also offer excellent opportunities to assess how much children understand and to teach important information about bodies and sexuality. The first step is to try to understand their play in a curious and non-reactive way. Children are sensitive to their loved ones emotions and will read your tone and facial expression. Even if their play elicits fear or shame in you, try and put on a calm and pleasing demeanor. To do this, it’s important to stay calm and breathe. Staying calm will allow you to make clear decisions about what you say and/or do, rather than acting on strong emotions.
Part of this is why we practice preparing for these events long before they happen.
In the case described above, a parent might calmly tell the children that it’s time to get dressed. After they are dressed. You might ask them to tell you more about the game they were playing. This is a good time to ask open ended questions? You might say, “Was one or both of you curious about the others body - how your bodies are similar and different?” What did you discover? How did you feel about this?”
If they tell you something about what they learned, you might say, “I am glad you learned some things. However, when we play we keep our clothes on. Let’s do that from now on, ok? And please remember that our bodies are our own. No one gets to ever touch our bodies without our permission. Is that understood?”
In the opening scenario, all of the children involved were about the same age, had been playmates for some time, and seemed to be enjoying their game. So, it’s likely the children were just curious and playing around and that no one was upset about what happened. If you encounter a situation where the children are a little embarrassed but otherwise not distressed, this can present an ideal opportunity for teaching the children about healthy boundaries and rules about body curious behavior.
Educating Children about Sexual Issues
Just because a behavior is typical doesn’t mean the behavior should be ignored. Often, when children participate in body curious and sexual behavior it indicates it is likely a good time to learn something. Teach what the child needs to know given the situation and the age of development.
In this case, for example, the parent might teach the children that it’s okay to be curious about other people’s bodies, but that genitals should be kept private, even with friends. Although children usually respond well when parents take the time to give them correct information and answer their questions, it is important to provide information that is appropriate to the child’s age and developmental level. In Table 2 below, you will find an overview of some of the most important information and safety messages for children of various ages.
Keep in mind that you do not need to bombard children with information all at once.
Provide “sound-bite” conversations.
Let the situation—and the child’s questions—guide the lessons you share. The important thing is to let children know that you are ready to listen and to answer whatever questions they may have.
Too often, children get the majority of their sexual education from other children and from media sources such as television shows, songs, movies, video games, and porn or pop-up/porn sites. Not only is this information often wrong and misleading, but it may also have very little to do with the sexual values that parents want to convey. Explicit adult sexual activities are sometimes found during “family time” television shows, in commercials, on cartoon/children’s channels, or on video games, and can have an influence on children’s behaviors. Research now indicates that 99% of children use video games.
Controlling media exposure and providing appropriate alternatives is an important part of teaching children about sexual issues. Get to know the rating systems of games, movies, and television shows and make use of the parental controls available through many internet, cable, and satellite providers. This is especially important for children under 8 who experience early exposure to graphic sexual imagery traumatic and are not able to understand the adult content.
As children grow to be ages 8 to 12 it is critical they receive media literacy education so they become wise at differentiating what is real from what is fantasy/marketing in media and porn. It is important to make time to watch television with your child and when appropriate, to use this time as a springboard to talk about sexual or relationship issues. By engaging in ongoing conversations with them you will help them develop the skills to make healthy decisions about their behavior and relationships.
Now that we've made it through that stage, I want to address a few myths that rise up surrounding sex-positive parenting:
Myth: Talking about sex with my children will just encourage them to become sexually active.
Fact: In a recent survey of American teens, 9 out of 10 teens said it would be easier to delay sexual activity and prevent unwanted pregnancy if they were able to have “more open, honest conversations” with their parents on these topics. This has been verified in countless other studies that demonstrate that kids in fact delay sexual onset, make overall safer choices and describe themselves as closer to their parents overall when they are able to talk openly with their parents about issues related to sexuality and gender. (7)
When you talk honestly with your children about sexual issues, you can give them the knowledge and skills they need to keep safe and to make good decisions about relationships and intimacy that will make their lives more happy and successful! They will also stay more connected to you and thank you when they are adults.