Sexual Behavior of Children

Are Babies Sexual?

It is natural for young children (ages 0-5) to be sexual. They are curious about their bodies and what their bodies do. Small children may playfully engage in sexual exploration and learning. Some examples of this behavior include:

  • Interest in bathroom activities
  • Interest in seeing and touching genitals of others
  • Touching their own genitals
  • Playing doctor

Very young children usually do whatever they want to do at any given time and in any particular place. When their behavior is inappropriate, they can usually be directed to other activities without too much difficulty since their attention spans are so short. Example: It would not be unusual for a 4-year-old girl to lift her dress in church to proudly show off her panties. However, most children at this age will respond to redirection of their behavior and accept an adult’s explanation that their behavior is not appropriate in public.

What about Elementary School Aged Children?

When children start school, they become more social. As this happens, their sexual interest increases, and they also become shy and perhaps embarrassed about their behavior. They may no longer want adults around when they are in the bathroom or getting dressed. They may touch themselves sexually, but this usually occurs in private. They become interested in looking at pictures of bodies, using sex words, and telling dirty jokes. You may even see them holding hands with or kissing other children. This occurs between children of the opposite sex as well as children of the same sex, and usually with friends and peers rather than strangers. If their sexual exploration becomes inappropriate they can usually be redirected easily.

What about Teenagers?

Teenagers engage in a wide range of sexual behaviors. Some of these activities may be prankish such as mooning or streaking their friends, or they may settle into serious, steady, romantic relationships which include sex. While we may not approve, or think that the youth are ready emotionally for this, it is not unusual for some youth to experiment with all sorts of sexual behavior. Some teenagers will also engage in sexual activity with members of the same sex. Once again, these activities usually occur with others in their own age group.

Signs of Sexual Behavioral Problems

If you notice any of the following behaviors, discuss them with the child’s child welfare specialist. These sexual behaviors may be indications of problems that need immediate attention:

  • A child’s sexual behavior is different from that of other children in the same age group.
    Example: It is not unusual to see a 3-year-old girl rubbing between her legs as she sits on the couch watching television. However, we would not expect this in a 16-year-old girl.
  • A child’s sexual activity appears too advanced for his or her age.
    Example: We would not expect to discover a 7-year-old engaged in anal intercourse. We would want to find out how a child so young came to have knowledge of this behavior and intervene appropriately for the child’s protection.
  • A child engages in sexual activities in public. In this case, the specific activity of a child may be normal, but it is behavior that should occur only in private.
    Example: It is not unusual for a 17-year-old boy to masturbate, but we would not expect him to do it in a shopping mall.
  • A child engages in sexual behavior with other children who are not the child’s friends or peers. Children and youth usually choose others they know and have an ongoing relationship with when they explore or engage in sexual activities. It is unusual for children to engage in sexual activities with children who are strangers or not well known to them.
  • A child is preoccupied with sex to the exclusion of other activities. If sexual activities seem to be the central focus of the child’s interest or the child appears to be driven to engage in sexual acts, it is cause for concern.
  • A child’s sexual activity causes physical or emotional pain to self or others.Example: We expect a 6-year-old may masturbate, but it is unusual for him or her to persist to the point of doing physical harm.
  • A child engages in sexual activity with children who are younger, smaller or in some other way more vulnerable. We expect normal healthy sexual activity to take place among friends or peers of the same age, size, developmental level, etc. If a child is in any position to take advantage of another child and uses this for sexual gain it is cause for concern.
    Example: A child who is baby-sitting for another younger child may have power over the younger child because the baby sitter is in charge, and the younger child is expected to obey.
  • A child’s sexual behaviors continue after clear and consistent attempts by an adult to redirect the activity or discipline the behavior. If the behavior seems to be out of the child’s control, or if the child refuses to change the behavior, this is an indicator of a problem needing intervention.
  • Expressions of anger frequently accompany a child’s sexual behavior. Children with sexual behavioral problems often learn to use sex to express their anger. This is cause for serious concern and requires intervention.
  • A child uses tricks, games, promises, threats or force to get another child to engage in sexual activity. Sexually abusive children may be manipulative in getting another child to cooperate with them in sexual activity. They may promise rewards or threaten to retaliate if the other child refuses or tells anyone.

What Should You Do if the Child Placed in Your Home Shows Any of These Behaviors?

Resource parents who observe any of these behaviors, or any other type of worrisome behavior, should talk to the child’s child welfare specialist. While waiting for professional help to begin for the child who exhibits any of these sexual behaviors, provide closer supervision of the child, especially in the bathroom and at night. Do not leave this child alone with others, particularly younger, smaller or developmentally delayed children. The child welfare specialist can help you create a safety plan for the protection of all of the children in your home.

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