Understanding Sexual Behaviors of Children
A Guide for Parents and
Prepared by a team of child development specialists working with children in the Fairfax-Falls Church community who represent the following agencies:
This information has been specially developed to help parents and others understand and recognize what is considered normal sexual behavior of young children. It has been designed as a guide in determining whether a child’s sexual behavior with other children can be managed with parental guidance, or if it may require help from a professional.
In addition, therapists, social workers, doctors, nurses, child care providers and others who work with children may find this a useful resource for parents seeking advice about a child’s sexual behavior and/or for parents whose children display problem sexual behavior.
From infancy to preadolescence, children display a wide range of sexual behaviors. Very often, however, when parents discover that their child initiates or is involved in sexual behaviors with another child, they may wonder if the behavior is within the range of normal exploratory sexual play, or if it is a sign of a problem or, perhaps, an indication of sexual abuse.
As your child moves through different stages of development, he or she will engage in different forms of exploratory play. Some of this play may be of a sexual nature.
Discovering that a young child is involved in sexual behaviors with another child (or children) can sometimes be difficult to handle. A parent’s first feelings may include shock, denial or anger. Displaying these feelings to the child or overreacting could cause a child’s sexual behavior to “go underground.”
A parent faces the challenge to:
What you consider to be problem sexual behaviors actually may be within the normal range of behavior for your child’s age group. Sometimes children display or engage in sexual behavior as a result of having been sexually abused by an adult. However, sometimes the behavior may be a result of other causes, which will be discussed later.
Learning how to handle these situations and knowing when and where to seek outside help will allow you to respond to your child in a healthy way.
Despite parents’ best attempts to monitor what their children see and hear, today’s children are often exposed to a wide variety of sexual messages through the media.
Think about the ways you learned about sex as a child. Now think about the ways children learn about sex today. They are exposed to sexual themes, language and actual sexual scenes through news programs, television shows, commercials, soap operas, popular music, the Internet, movies and magazines.
Even the most well-meaning of parents cannot completely protect children from society’s focus on sex and sexuality. These influences may lead naturally curious children to experiment sexually.
Parents, as well as professionals who work with young children, need to understand sexuality at various developmental stages of childhood. For example, toddlers and preschoolers are openly interested and curious about their own and others’ bodies. Young school-aged children often are full of curiosity and questions, yet have an increased desire for privacy. Consequently, some sexual behaviors are hidden for a time. Preadolescent children (ages 9-12) demonstrate a heightened awareness of sexuality as they prepare for adolescence and adulthood.
It is also helpful to keep in mind family attitudes and customs with regard to privacy, openness about sex, and media exposure for children. Professionals should explore these areas with families when helping parents understand their child’s sexuality.
The information in the following section serves as a general guide to children’s normal sexual behaviors at different stages of development. However, children may exhibit few, all, or none of the sexual behaviors that are typical of their age range.
It is reprinted with permission of the author, psychologist Eliana Gil, Ph.D., who has gained national recognition in the area of children’s sexual development and the assessment and treatment of abused children, sexually aggressive children, and "sexualized" children, that is, children who act out sexually beyond the norm.
As children grow up, the number of people with whom they come into contact increases. Infants and toddlers have contact primarily with family members and child care providers. School-aged children have a wider circle of people with whom they interact, including family, peers, teachers, friends, coaches, etc. Increased contacts may increase children’s exposure to other children’s sexual behaviors, and/or to sexual abuse. The number and types of contacts a child has should be considered when assessing his or her sexual behavior.
Parents can be instrumental in encouraging their children’s sexual development in positive ways. Generally speaking, however, as children increasingly interact with others outside the family, parents have less direct supervision and influence over their children’s sexual behaviors.
Contacts with peers increase as children reach school age. At this stage, children are more exposed to sex, ask more questions, and may privately experiment with other children. While this is normal behavior, parental guidance is required. When discovering sexual behavior between children, consider such factors as their relative age, size, and relationship to each other. Determine if both children agreed to the behavior or if one child acted over another’s objection.
School-aged children have increased contacts with a variety of individuals and groups in the community. Unusual sexual behavior in a child combined with sudden shifts in attitudes about school, peers, or activities may indicate a problem. At this point, open communication with your child and involved adults is extremely important.
Children may exhibit unusual sexual behaviors for a variety of reasons. The following signs or symptoms may not necessarily mean that a child has been sexually abused, but rather that the child may have other concerns which need to be addressed. Possible signs or indicators of problem sexual behavior might include:
Regardless of the reason for the child’s sexual behavior, parents’ reactions when discovering the behavior are critically important to the child’s well-being. A healthy response by adults can have a positive long-term effect on building the child’s sense of selfesteem, guiding future sexual development, and eliminating problem sexual behavior.
Teach your child at a very early age the difference between good, bad, confusing and private touching. This will help the child learn to prevent unwanted sexual touching from other children and adults. It will also help the child learn to respect other children and their rights.
Set limits for children with regard to sexual behavior. Avoid overreacting or being judgmental. Finally, do not hesitate to ask questions — in a non-threatening way — if your child exhibits new sexual behaviors and to seek help if you believe it is warranted.
The following are offered as guidelines:
As mentioned earlier, children may exhibit few, all, or none of the sexual behaviors that are typical of their age range. If you discover your child engaging in sexual behavior, use this as an opportunity to talk with him or her about privacy, appropriate and inappropriate behavior, respect for their own and others’ bodies and preventing sexual abuse.
Additional help may be necessary when a child’s unusual or inappropriate sexual behavior continues in spite of parental intervention. It may also be necessary when the child’s sexual behavior is completely outside the normal behavior for that age range.
The following resources may be helpful when considering professional assistance:
The power of parenting is often underestimated when it comes to helping children experience their sexual development in a positive way. If, however, after considering this information, you still have concerns about your child’s sexual behaviors; consult the following resources for additional guidance.
Resources in Fairfax County
Sharon K. Araji, “Sexually Aggressive Children: Coming to Understand Them”; Sage Publications, 1997.
William Friedrich, Daniel Broughton and Robert Beilke, “Normative Sexual Behavior in Children”, PEDIATRICS, 1991.
Eliana Gil and Toni Cavanagh Johnson, “Sexualized Children: Assessment and Treatment of Sexualized Children and Children who Molest”, Launch Press, 1993.
Toni Cavanagh Johnson, “Understanding the Sexual Behaviors of Young Children, SIECUS (Sexuality Information & Education Council of the United States) Report”, 1991.
William Pithers, Alison Gray, Carolyn Cunningham, and Sandy Lane, “From Trauma to Understanding: A Guide for Parents of Children with Sexual Behavior Problems, Safer Society Press”, 1991.