How to Recognize Concerning Behavior Between Children

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 warning signs 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.

Age-appropriate sexual play

  • 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 shows their 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 has been removed from the soccer team because they continue to touch other children’s private parts.
  • is between children of different ages, size, and development level.
    Example: An eleven-year-old is “playing doctor” with a three-year-old.
  • is aggressive, forced, or coerced.
    Example: A ten-year-old threatens their six-year-old cousin and makes them touch their genitals.
  • does not decrease after the child is told to stop the behavior.
    Example: A nine-year-old 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 adolescents and children with sexual behavior problems is available from the National Center on Sexual Behavior of Youth,