What is age appropriate touching between school-aged friends?
Dear Stop It Now!,
I recently found out while at a friend's house my 8 year old went into his female friend's bedroom where they both took off their clothes and while standing, he touched his penis to her vagina. On another occasion, he asked if she wanted to do that again. She said "no" and he said "okay." Since then, my son and I have had a conversation about appropriate touch which is a conversation we’ve had many times before. We also had a discussion about the body, how babies are born, masturbation, sexual abuse, etc. I gave him a book to look at and ensured him that although he can not do those things again, he was not in trouble and that curiosity is normal.
Can you please tell me how typical this is, if it is considered sexual abuse, and if I should do anything other than what I’ve already done?
Dear Concerned Parent,
Children’s sexual behaviors can be confusing, even for an involved and engaged parent like yourself. Yes, you are doing all the right things! And, I’m so glad you’re looking for even more support.
Age Appropriate Sexual Play
It is within the range of Age-Appropriate Behaviors for children your son’s age to experiment with same-age children. However, since touching his penis to her vagina does mimic a mature sexual behavior, this is notable and worth some follow-up. Please know that children’s sexual behaviors are very different from adult sexual behaviors. Children’s actions may sexually (and unintentionally) harm other children, but their motivations are very different from an adult who sexually abuses a child. I’m also wondering if you’ve been able to ask your son where he got this first idea from? These behaviors can come up for a variety of reasons: curiosity, confusion about boundaries, exposure to inappropriate content, a disability, or even as a response to their own sexual abuse.
Checking-in with the Other Parents
I’m wondering how this other child is doing, now? Have you been able to talk to her parents? If not, it is important to let them know that this happened and see how their daughter is doing. If she were to exhibit a pattern or cluster of these Warning Signs then this could indicate that she needs help and perhaps even professional support. If she was negatively impacted by this incident, they can turn to her pediatrician for support and potential referrals for an age-appropriate therapist. This may seem like a very difficult conversation but sharing how you've followed up with your son and how serious you're taking his behavior can help. And when parents can work together on children's safety and with a committment to keep working together to keep all children safe, then children are indeed more protected.
Continuing Talks about Healthy Sexuality and Development
Moving forward, keep making sure he knows that it’s completely normal and healthy for him to be curious about his own and other people’s bodies, but it’s never okay to look at, touch or show his genitals to someone else – or for someone to do that to him, either. There are other ways he can satisfy his curiosity safely, and I hope you keep making sure he has resources to do so. If you’d like more ideas, our Healthy Sexual Development can connect you with resources. Think about keeping fresh age-appropriate books or websites at the ready. The website Amaze is for slightly older children but has some videos which you may feel are appropriate for his age and stage. This video on consent is a nice one, and this website on Kids Health can also be helpful to watch together. He should know that safety and appropriate behavior – not punishment – are the goals. Keep encouraging him to come to you with any questions or concerns he may have.
Part of keeping your son safe and teaching him about appropriate behavior also involves working on a Family Safety Plan. Just like you have rules about when to go to bed and when homework must be finished by, it is also important to have rules about body boundaries, privacy and consent – a comprehensive set of rules that every adult and child follows no matter where they are. Safety planning also involves giving age-appropriate information about their own bodies, and their peer’s bodies too. It sounds like you already have a great plan in place and I’m certain that your son benefits from this greatly. As a child, he is still learning about consent, empathy, and appropriate behavior, so continue talking together. He needs the support, understanding and tools you're provideing to help him be resilient after mistakes and to make good decisions moving forward.
Some families have rules like: Adults and children have the doors open and keep their clothes on when playing. The places we cover with a bathing suit are private, and we always keep our hands to ourselves. Unless you need help in the bathroom from your parents, or if you are at the doctor’s office getting a physical exam, no one should touch or see your genitals but you. If someone is asking about your private parts, talking to you about theirs, or if anyone ever makes you feel uncomfortable, it is important to talk to a trusted adult. Surprises are okay because it’s a happy thing we tell someone about later, but we don’t keep secrets. Adults always ask children if they would like a hug, kiss, or high-five and they respect their answer. And whatever else you may want to tailor to your family’s needs. I’ve included some additional resources below.
- Why Healthy Sexuality Education is an Important Part of a Safety Plan
- Ten Things To Remember When You Talk To Kids About Sexuality
Stop It Now!
Follow-up communication from this parent:
Thank you so much for your reply. I am so glad I reached out and your responses are full of great questions, resources, and thoughtful ideas.
The girl is doing well now but she was holding this information in until last week. When she finally approached her mom about what had happened, she was crying and in distress. She was trying to go to bed at night and after a couple of nights of coming out of her room crying, she finally told her mom about it. The mom came to me, told me what her daughter had told her which was only part of the story because she left out the touching part even after being asked if there was touching, the girl said no. I have been very open with the girl's parents about what happened between our children. After I spoke to my son about the incident, I called to inform the girl's mom about what my son said had actually happened.
I will be following up with my son to find out more information on what gave him the idea to touch his private body parts to hers. Another piece of background info is that my son and I have had a talk about how a woman becomes pregnant so he did have knowledge that a penis and vagina come in contact. My issue is that I can't remember if I had that conversation with him before or after the incident with his friend occurred.
I will continue to increase my children's awareness and reinforce family rules and safety around their bodies.
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Last edited on: February 4th, 2019