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Sexual behaviour of children

Recognising normal sexual development in children from worrying or abusive behaviour

As parents, deciding what is 'normal' and when to worry about the sexual behaviour of children can be very difficult and confusing.

As children grow, they may show signs of sexual behaviour; this is a normal part of growing up. What is normal, worrying or abusive depends on the age of the child and the situation.

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What is normal sexual behaviour in children?

Sexual development progresses through a number of different phases:

  • infancy
  • young school age
  • pre-adolescence
  • adolescence.

Each stage has behaviours which are considered 'age-appropriate'. But as children develop at different rates it is also normal to see a child exhibiting behaviour from the age group immediately above or below them.

If a child has learning difficulties or developmental delays, you need to consider their developmental stage. Some children's emotional and physical development does not follow their actual age and you will need to take this into account. This can be confusing and you should seek professional advice if you have worries.

Behaviours typical of each developmental stage might include:

Pre-school children, age 0 to 4 years

  • Kisses and hugs others.
  • Is curious about and looks at other's private body parts; has limited understanding of privacy needs.
  • Talks about private body parts.
  • Uses words such as 'poo', 'bum' and 'willy' freely.
  • Plays 'house' or 'doctor' games.
  • Shows, touches, or rubs own genitals, or masturbates as a 'comfort' habit.

Young children, approximate age 5 to 9 years

  • Kisses and hugs others.
  • Displays an interest in others' private body parts but is aware of the need for privacy.
  • Talks about and occasionally shows private body parts to others.
  • Uses words such as 'poo', 'bum' and 'willy' freely and delights in being 'shocking'.
  • Sometimes uses swear words and/or 'sex' words copied from others.
  • Plays 'house' or 'doctor' games.
  • Sometimes touches or rubs own genitals, or masturbates as a comfort habit.

Pre-adolescent children, approximate age 10 to 12 years

  • Kisses, hugs, and may 'date' others.
  • Is interested in others' private body parts and in the changes occurring in puberty, is aware of the need for privacy.
  • May ask questions about relationships and sexual behaviour.
  • May look at sexual pictures including internet images.
  • Masturbates in private.

Adolescent children, approximate age 13 to 16 years

  • Kisses, hugs, dates others, may have longer term relationships.
  • Is interested in and asks questions about body parts, relationships and sexual behaviour. Is aware of the need for privacy.
  • Uses sexual language and talks about sexual acts with peers.
  • May look at sexual pictures including internet images.
  • Masturbates in private.
  • Experiments sexually with adolescents of similar age.

It is usual for children of all ages to play and experiment and be curious about their own and each other's bodies.

Some behaviour could indicate a child is at risk. If you are worried about a child, even if you are not certain, you can contact us and talk to our trained counsellors.


What should parents be aware of when observing children's behaviour?

It's important to avoid:

Over-reacting to normal behaviour

Adults may feel uncomfortable when they see children displaying what seems like sexual behaviour. As parents, what we think can be affected by age, gender, personal experiences, cultural background and religious beliefs.

Criticising a child for expressing normal behaviour

This may reduce their self-confidence and make them reluctant to trust adults around them. They may become confused and anxious about relationships in the future.

Ignoring worrying behaviour

Sometimes, if a child is unable to tell anyone about what has happened to them, they will communicate through their behaviour. Ignoring the signs may mean opportunities to help your child and possibly stop abuse are missed.


What sort of behaviour should parents be concerned about?

As a parent, you should be concerned if there is any sign of the following in a child's sexual behaviour:

  • behaviours that are very different to the 'norm' for the child's age or developmental stage
  • having sexual knowledge beyond what would be expected at their age / stage of development
  • interactions between children of significantly different ages / developmental stages
  • being made to do something they don't want to do or are not sure about
  • sexual behaviours that are accompanied by force, aggression or coercion
  • behaviours that affect other areas of the child's life, for example their achievement or attendance at school
  • compulsive behaviours (something the child can't stop doing).

What to do if you are worried about a child's behaviour

  • Talk to the child calmly and ask them about what happened. They may be uncomfortable talking about sexual issues and may also be worried they are in trouble so your tone and manner are very important.
  • Sometimes children do not realise that certain behaviour is okay in private but not in public. Explain this to them and agree what they can do and where.
  • They do not realise that their behaviour is upsetting or harming other children. Once you have explained this they need to agree to stop the behaviour. If they don't, you need to talk to someone who can advise you on how to get help. Contact us if you are unsure who to talk to.
  • The child may say something that worries you, and might indicate that they have witnessed or experienced sexual abuse. If this is the case you must seek professional advice immediately. You can contact us if you are unsure who to talk to.

Where to find more advice

For more advice on how to recognise the signs and protect your child from sexual abuse, download our free guide for parents.

You can also find more advice specifically aimed at parents and carers on the Stop it now!  website and in their guide Child's play: preventing abuse among children and young people (PDF).

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