Understanding Sexual Behavior in Kids
You can find help to determine if sexual play between children is a problem. When presented with a sexual behavior in a child, it is not always obvious whether or not the behavior is anything to be concerned about. Knowing what is developmentally expected is the first place to start. Understanding children’s typical sexual development, knowledge, and behavior is necessary to accurately identify sexual behavior problems in children. When there is a concern it is helpful to learn more about the hallmarks of problematic sexual behavior. If you are seeing signs that the behavior may be harmful, it can be very helpful to consult with a professional who specializes in this particular area.
Sexual play vs. problematic sexual behavior.
There is a broad continuum of sexual behaviors in children and youth that range from common sexual play to problematic sexual behavior. It is important to recognize that not all concerning sexual behavior in children are an indicator of a serious or ongoing sexual behavior problem. It is essential to speak with a specialist if you are concerned about a child’s behavior. This way you and the child can get the help needed to understand and manage the behavior safely.
- is exploratory and spontaneous
- occurs intermittently and by mutual agreement
- occurs with children of similar age, size, or developmental level, such as siblings, cousins, or peers
- is not associated with high levels of fear, shame, anger, or anxiety
- decreases when told by caregivers to stop
- can be controlled by increased supervision
Problematic sexual behavior
- is a frequent, repeated behavior, such as compulsive masturbation.
Example: A six-year-old repeatedly masturbates at school or in other public places.
- occurs between children who do not know each other well.
Example: An eight-year-old girl shows her private parts to a new child during an after school program.
- occurs with high frequency and interferes with normal childhood activities.
Example: A seven-year-old girl has been removed from the soccer team because she continues to touch other children’s private parts.
- is between children of different ages, size, and development level.
Example: An eleven-year-old boy is “playing doctor” with a three-year-old girl.
- is aggressive, forced, or coerced.
Example: A ten-year-old threatens his six-year-old cousin and makes him touch his penis.
- does not decrease after the child is told to stop the behavior.
Example: A nine-year-old child continues to engage other children in mutual touching after being told the behavior is not allowed and having consequences, such as being grounded.
- causes harm to the child or others.
Example: A child causes physical injury, such as bruising, redness, or abrasions on themselves or another child, or causes another child to be highly upset or fearful.
Infrequent sexual behaviors in children ages 2 - 12
- Puts mouth on sex parts
- Asks to engage in adult-like sex acts
- Puts objects in rectum or vagina
- Imitates intercourse
- Masturbates with objects
- Undresses other people
- Touches others’ sex parts after being told not to
- Asks to watch sexually explicit television
- Touches adults’ sex parts
- Makes sexual sounds
Additional information about adolescent sex offenders and children with sexual behavior problems is available from the National Center on Sexual Behavior of Youth, www.ncsby.org.
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- Recognizing Warning Signs
- Definitions of Child Sexual Abuse
- How Abuse Happens
- Understanding Sexual Behavior in Kids
- Warning Signs in Adults and Children
- Warning Signs of Abuse in Children (Behavioral and Physical)
- Signs an Adult May be At-Risk to Harm a Child
- Behaviors to Watch Out for When Adults are with Children
- How Can I Tell if My Child Has Been Sexually Abused?
- Warning Signs a Young Person May Be a Target of Online Sexual Abuse
- Warning Signs of Someone's Dangerous or Illegal Online Activity
- Prevention and Safety
- Keys to Preventing Sexual Abuse of Children
- Creating a Plan for Safety
- Considering Filing Reports
- Talking About It
- Finding the Courage to Speak Up
- Speaking to Someone with a Sexual Behavior Problem
- When a Child Tells About Sexual Abuse
- How Should I Respond to the Child?
- What Should I Do after a Child Tells?
- How Can I Better Understand What My Child is Going Through?
- Possible Reactions of Non-Offending Parents and Caring Adults
- Is the Child Telling Me the Truth?
- What Might the Person Who Has Offended Be Thinking or Feeling after a Disclosure?
- Recovery and Therapy
- For Children and Adults Who Have Been Abused
- For Those At-Risk to Abuse Others or Who Have Offended
- For Parents and Caregivers
- Reporting and Legal Issues
- Filing Reports
- Child Protective Services and Police
- Legal Issues