Healthy sexual behaviour in children and young people

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

Sex and sexuality are important parts of everyone's make-up, and sexual behaviour starts at a very early age. As children get older, the way they behave and express these feelings changes and they move through different, and normal, phases.

There's no doubt that children these days are exposed to sexual images at a far younger age and in far 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 sync 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 that 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

In this phase, 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 sexual pictures, including on the internet
  • 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, including on the internet
  • 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 send the message that sex shouldn't be spoken about then your children 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 children's behaviour seems shocking or morally wrong to you.

But try to keep calm. 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

If you have any worries at all, even if you're not sure, then it's important that you act as soon as you possibly can.

What to do if you’re worried

Any sexualised behaviour which doesn’t seem right for the child’s age should be addressed.

First, talk to your child about the way they’re behaving. It’ll give you the chance 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.

Tell them that they can always talk to you about sex, and try to have ongoing conversations.

Look at what may have caused the behaviour. Is there an older sibling or family member who may have been an influence? Have they been looking at unsuitable websites, music videos or computer games? If the problem seems to stem from online activity look into what blocks and parental controls you can put on computers, tablets and phones.

You could also 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. 

What about online porn?

Hands holding smartphoneThe internet has transformed the world completely. It's also made any information you could want available with just a few clicks of a mouse. The downside is that it's also made a lot of unsuitable material equally easy to find for anyone who looks for it.

Online porn is a good example. There are thousands of unregulated sites and they're easy to find, and easy to stumble across accidentally. In fact, research has shown that more children accidentally find online porn than deliberately search for it. One of the reasons for this is that lots of sites lure people in by looking like competitions with prizes to be won.

Children might also find their way to pornographic sites because they're searching for information about sex online – something they might prefer to do rather than asking you directly. But whatever the reason your child finds themselves on a porn site you should be aware of the 2 key risks it involves:

  • Distress. Graphic images and scenes can be very disturbing to children. In 2014/15 Childline dealt with 1229 counselling sessions with young people who'd been exposed to online sexually explicit images/content. (NSPCC, 2015)
  • Influence on attitudes. Children who watch online porn can believe that it gives a true picture of sex and relationships. 

28% of young people felt that pornography changed the way they thought about relationships

Explanation: Based on a survey of over 600 young people aged 11 to 18 via the ChildLine website. The research was commissioned by The Daily Telegraph, who also published the findings.

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