28 Sep Sexual Behaviour in Children
Is it normal?
Many parents are very surprised or shocked when they find their young child engaging in sexual behaviours. However, it is quite a normal stage of child development and many young children enjoy the feeling they get from touching their own genitals. When talking about sexual behaviour in children, there is quite a difference between normal and healthy exploration and behaviours that are problematic and may require some formal intervention.
Sexual exploration in childhood is part of a child’s natural curiosity and is one way children explore their bodies and how they work. Children may engage in this play through games like doctors and nurses and there may be an element of looking and touching as part of this exploration. Normal sexual play occurs between children of similar age, physical size and developmental ability. The sexual play is only part of a whole bunch of games a child might be playing with their friends. It might be present for a while and then disappear until a child enters a different developmental stage. In healthy sexual play it is also important that all children choose to be part of the game rather than tricked or threatened into joining in the activity.
Some examples of normal sexual behaviour in preschool and primary school age children include:
- Talking about genitals, breasts and having babies. Shows curiosity in wanting to look at others in the nude. Sometimes adding private parts when drawing pictures of nude people.
- Curiosity in looking or touching peer aged friend’s private parts. Boys may be interested to look at how their penis is the same or different to others, depending on circumcision.
- Engaging in rubbing genitals some of the time, eg to self-sooth at bedtime.
- Might tell ‘dirty’ jokes or use swear words some of the time.
- Sometimes engaging in games related to sex and sexuality with their peer aged friends.
There is quite a variation between children when it comes to the levels of sexual behaviour. Many parents will talk about having a child who constantly has their hand down the front of their pants, whereas some children display very little interest in their own genitals or sexual play. Sexual behaviours in children become concerning or problematic when they are impacting on the child’s and possibly other children’s lives.
Some examples of concerning and problematic sexual behaviours include:
- Children who engage in chronic masturbation, where it affects their ability to engage in other activities and impacts their physical health. They cannot be easily redirected from the masturbation.
- Children who engage in coercive and/or intrusive sexual activities with other children.
- When sexual play continues after a parent has provided consistent messages to stop the behaviour.
- When a child’s sexual knowledge appears to be significantly beyond what would be expected for their age.
If you are concerned about your child’s sexual behaviour you should seek expert advice as to whether professional intervention may be appropriate.
Julie Steward – Psychologist