Healthy sexual behaviour

Your guide to keeping children safe, spotting warning signs and what to do if you're worried

As children get older, the way they express their sexual feelings changes. There's no doubt that children these days are exposed to sexual images at a far younger age. And in more places than ever before, including music videos, websites and social media. So it's not surprising that sometimes children's sexual development can seem out of step with their age.

It's important that you have a good idea of what's normal sexual behaviour and can also spot the warning signs if something might not be quite right.

The stages of normal sexual behaviour

There are 4 phases of childhood sexual development. Just like every other part of growing up, some children mature sooner or later than others. So, don't be too worried if your child doesn't act exactly as you'd expect.

Children with developmental delays may not stick to these age guides. If you're worried about anything you should speak to a health professional about it.

Even at this stage, sexual behaviour is beginning to emerge through actions like:

  • kissing and hugging
  • showing curiosity about private body parts
  • talking about private body parts and using words like poo, willy and bum
  • playing "house" or "doctors and nurses" type games with other children
  • touching, rubbing or showing off their genitals or masturbating as a comforting habit. 

As children get a little older they become more aware of the need for privacy while also:

  • kissing and hugging
  • showing curiosity about private body parts but respecting privacy
  • talking about private body parts and sometimes showing them off
  • trying to shock by using words like poo, willy and bum
  • using swear and sex words they've heard other people say
  • playing "house" or "doctors and nurses" type games with other children
  • touching, rubbing or showing others their private parts

Children are getting more curious about sex and sexual behaviour through:

  • kissing, hugging and 'dating' other children
  • being interested in other people's body parts and the changes that happen in puberty
  • asking about relationships and sexual behaviour
  • looking for information about sex, this might lead to finding online porn
  • masturbating in private.

As puberty kicks in, sexual behaviour becomes more private with:

  • kissing, hugging, dating and forming longer-lasting relationships
  • being interested in and asking questions about body parts, relationships and sexuality
  • using sexual language and talking about sex with friends
  • looking for sexual pictures or online porn
  • masturbating in private and experimenting sexually with the same age group.

How to react to sexualised behaviour

Learning about sex and sexual behaviour is a normal part of a child's development. It will help them as they grow up, and as they start to make decisions about relationships. By knowing what's 'normal' at each particular stage you can be ready for what to expect, even though it might seem a little uncomfortable at times!

If you're too disapproving or imply that sex shouldn't be spoken about then your child may be less likely to come to you with any questions or worries they might have. 

Of course, this won't be easy for everyone, especially if your child's behaviour seems shocking or morally wrong to you. But try to keep calm. Your body language and tone can make a difference. The way you react can affect how comfortable your child will feel about talking to you about these things in the future.

Warning signs that something's not right

Sexualised behaviour which is significantly more advanced than you'd normally expect for a child of a particular age or which shows a lack of inhibition, could be a cause for concern. For example, a pre-school child who talks about sex acts or uses adult language or a 12 year old who masturbates in public.

Other warning signs include:

  • sexual interest in adults or children of very different ages to their own
  • forceful or aggressive sexual behaviour
  • compulsive habits
  • reports from school that their behaviour is affecting their progress and achievement.

What to do if you’re worried

Talk to your child about their behaviour. It’ll give you the chance to understand their feelings and work out how much they know about sex. It’s also a good chance to explain the differences between the things that are OK to do in public and what should be kept private.

Try these tips:

  1. Tell them that they can always talk to you about sex, and try to have ongoing conversations.
  2. Look at what may have caused the behaviour. Is there a family member who may have been an influence? Have they been looking at unsuitable websites, music videos or computer games?
  3. Find out about online safety and what blocks or parental controls you can put on computers, tablets and phones.
  4. Talk to teachers about whether they’ve noticed anything at school and to a trusted friend or health professional to ask if they have any advice.

Talking about sex and consent

Talking to your child about sex while they’re still in primary school will help you to work out their level of understanding and encourage them to ask questions. Don’t lecture your child but talk together and listen. 

You could try:

  • having short, informal chats now and again
  • using everyday situations to strike up the conversation, such as seeing a pregnant woman or discussing stories in the media
  • using humour if it makes it easier.

Read our advice on talking about difficult topics to help you get the conversation going.

Encourage your child to make safe choices.  As children get older it’s important to talk about sexually transmitted infections (STIs), contraception and pregnancy. Although children are generally taught these topics in secondary school, it’s helpful for them to know they can talk about them with you too.

Childline has information for young people about pregnancySTIs and contraception and safe sex.

What is consent?
It's important to talk to children and young people about consent. Sexual consent means being able to say yes and agreeing to do sexual things or have sex.

Consent in relationships is about feeling in control and saying yes or doing things because you choose to, not because someone is pressuring you to.

The law
The age of consent (the legal age to have sex) in the UK is 16 years old. The laws are there to protect children and not to prosecute under-16s who have mutually consenting sexual activity.

Any sort of sexual contact without consent is illegal, regardless of the age of those involved. Children under the age of 13 cannot consent to any type of sexual activity. 

It’s important to make sure your child understands what consent means, how it applies to them and that they have the right to say no. It’s also important to explain why they should always check if the other person is happy to engage in any sexual behaviour (give their consent).

 More about consent and children's legal rights