Sexual behaviors in young children: what’s normal, what’s not?

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” behaviors in your young child may be especially distressing. You may worry that these behaviors are odd, deviant or a sign of sexual victimization. In fact, “sexual” behavior​s in children are common, especially between about 3 to 6 years old. Usually, they are a normal part of development. Here’s some information that can help you tell the difference between normal “sexual” behaviors and behaviors that may signal a problem.

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’s important to keep in mind these behaviors 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. Normative (normal) common “sexual” behavior in 2 to 6-year-olds may include: touching/rubbing genitals in public or private; looking at or touching a peer’s or sibling’s genitals; showing genitals to peers; trying to see peers or adults naked. Caregivers often assume self-stimulatory behavior such as masturbation must have been taught, suggesting 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 behavior.

Parents also need to know when a child’s sexual behavior may be more than harmless curiosity and should be addressed by a professional. Sexual behavior 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. These include behavior that: is disruptive; 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.

If you are dealing with any of these issues or have more questions, don’t hesitate to talk with your child’s pediatrician. They can work with you to distinguish age-appropriate “normal” “sexual” behaviors from behaviors that are developmentally inappropriate or signal potential sexual behavior problems. Asking for help simply means you want what is best for your child, and you will do whatever you can to help them succeed. Much more information
 here and here.


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