Although we may not like to think of our children as sexual beings, they are. Children are born with the equipment that will later make them able to reproduce. As such, their bodies have been designed to be sexual, and sexual development starts from the time of conception. It doesn’t all start when they hit puberty, but instead, children undergo phases of sexual development. Here is a guide, adapted from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, to take you through those phases and help you recognize what’s normal and what is not.
WHAT IS NORMAL
Preschool Children (0-4 years old) are likely to:
- Explore their bodies by touch in public and private.
- Rub their genitals against objects or with their hands.
- Show their genitals to others.
- Try to touch their mother’s or other women’s breasts.
- Want to be naked.
- Want to see other people naked.
- Ask questions about their bodily functions and other’s.
- Discuss bodily functions such as pee and poop with other children.
Young Children (4-6 years) are likely to:
- Masturbate, occasionally in the presence of others.
- Attempt to see other people naked.
- Play games such as mommy/daddy and girlfriend/boyfriend.
- Engage in dating-like behavior like holding hands and kissing.
- Talk about their private parts.
- Explore other children’s private parts.
Read Related: When Are Kids Too Old to Bathe Together?
School Aged Children (7-12) are likely to:
- Masturbate in private.
- Play sexual games such as “doctor” and girlfriend/boyfriend.
- Attempt to see other people while undressing and naked.
- Be fascinated by partial or total nudity in pictures.
- View and see sexual content in media.
- Want privacy.
- Begin to feel sexual attraction.
WHAT IS NOT NORMAL
- Sexual behavior, among themselves or with dolls, that depicts explicit sexual acts.
- Sexual behavior that is beyond the child’s age, like a 4 year old wanting to kiss adults’ genitals.
- Showing any type of aggression, using threats and force.
- Children of different age groups, like a 12 year old playing “doctor” with a 3 year old.
- Activity that provokes anxiety or anger in the child.
When your child demonstrates these behaviors, you need to have a discussion with him (or her) about where he got the idea for that type of play, and why it is not appropriate. Likewise, if you see him playing with other children who demonstrate these behaviors, remove your child from the situation and caution him that he has the right to—and should—say no to this inappropriate contact.
Sexual development is a normal and natural aspect of being a child, and parents should not scold or punish children for normal sexual behavior. It is very important that parents talk to their children early on about sex and make this an ongoing topic. If parents suspect there is something abnormal with the child’s sexual behavior, consult with a professional right away.