For most parents, noticing when your child is exhibiting sexual behaviors can be shocking and even scary. Most parents’ first question they ask themselves is, “Has my child been sexually abused?” or “Has something sexually inappropriate happened to my child?” The panic sets in.

These are common, normal responses that most parents express to me when they call my office to ask about their child’s recent sexual behavior, desperately trying to figure out if their child’s sexual behavior is “normal.” Being a parent myself, I can completely understand these fears and concerns. It is one of the most horrifying things that can enter a parent’s mind, to wonder or know that their child has experienced sexual abuse, and it’s a question that enters many parents’ minds at least at some point in their child’s developmental years, and their fears aren’t necessarily unfounded. Retrospective research indicates that as many as 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will experience some form of sexual abuse before they turn age 18. Not only that, but children are most often sexually abused by someone they know and trust.

Unfortunately, many kids do not disclose being sexually abused. According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network,  reasons for nondisclosure can include:

  • threats of bodily harm of child and/or family
  • fears of being removed from their home
  • fear of not being believed
  • shame or guilt
  • fear of getting the abuser in trouble if the perpetrator is someone the child or family cares about
  • the belief that the sexual abuse was their own fault
  • fear of getting in trouble themselves
  • not understanding that the perpetrator’s actions are abusive, especially if the abuse is made into a game

It is important to note that although many children who have experienced sexual abuse show behavioral and emotional changes, others may not. That is why it is critical to focus not only on detection, but also prevention strategies and open communication between caregiver and child.

So, what’s normal sexual behavior look like?

Normal (common), age appropriate sexual behaviors can vary by age and developmental level of the child. Let’s start with the youngest ages. Please note that the following are not exhaustive lists.

Age Appropriate “Normal” Sexual Behavior – ages 0 – 4 years

  • Comfort being nude
  • Holding own genitals
  • Unself-conscious masturbation; touches/rubs own genitals when going to sleep, when tense, excited, or afraid
  • Interest in body parts and functions; interested in watching/peeking at people doing bathroom functions
  • “Show me yours, I’ll show you mine;’ “playing doctor” games with same age peers
  • Touching/looking at private parts of familiar children/adults (e.g., in bath)
  • Using slang words for bathroom functions
  • Asks about genitals, breasts, intercourse, babies
  • Shows others his/her genitals
  • Interest in urination and defecation
  • Likes to hear and tell “dirty” jokes
  • Draws genitals on human figures for artistic expression or because figure is being portrayed in the nude

Age Appropriate “Normal” Sexual Behavior – ages 5 – 9 years

  • Heightened sense of privacy about bodies
  • Body touching/holding own genitals
  • Masturbation with awareness of privacy; touches/rubs own genitals when going to sleep, when tense, excited, or afraid
  • Curiosity about others’ bodies
  • Slang words and swearing for body parts; uses “dirty” words for bathroom functions, genitals, and sex
  • Accidental access to pornography (mild); looks at nude pictures (not excessively, not redirected)
  • Shows others his/her genitals
  • Interest in urination and defecation
  • Asks about genitals, breasts, intercourse, babies

Age Appropriate “Normal” Sexual Behavior – ages 10 – 13 years

  • Growing need for privacy
  • Masturbation in private
  • Curiosity/seeking information
  • Use of sexual language
  • Interest in/participation in girlfriend and boyfriend relationships
  • Hugging, kissing, touching known same age peers
  • Exhibitionism with same age peers within context of play (e.g., flashing, mooning)
  • Use of mobile phones with known peers

Concerning Sexual Behavior

The following behaviors are concerning sexual behaviors some parents see. This means you, as a parent, should be watchful and possibly even seek consultation, especially if there are a number of these behaviors present in your child or if one or two of these behaviors are prevalent and consistent and continue despite repeated redirection (and possibly even consequences) by the caregiver.

Concerning Sexual Behavior – ages 0 – 4 years

  • Masturbation in public, even after repeated redirection
  • Forcing another child in sexual play
  • Sexualized play with dolls
  • Touching parts of animal or unfamiliar adult
  • Masturbation and touching others in preference to other activities
  • Persistently watching others nude or undressing
  • Pulling down other children’s pants/skirts up against their will
  • Wants to be nude in public after parent has redirected
  • Plays with feces, purposely urinates outside of toilet bowl

Concerning Sexual Behavior – ages 5 – 9 years

  • Continually touching self in public, Evan after redirection; rubs genitals on furniture or other objects
  • Persistent nudity/exposing self
  • Continually wanting to touch others inappropriately
  • Touching genitals of animals after redirection
  • Persistently watching/following others (e.g., to the bathroom)
  • Pulling other children’s pants down/skirts up against their will
  • Wants to play sex/sexuality games with much older or much younger children
  • Explicit talk/art/play of sexual nature
  • Draws genitalia on some nude figures but not others and on drawings of clothed people; genitals may be drawn disproportionate to size of body
  • Shows fear or anxiety about sexual topics
  • Uses “dirty” words with adults after parent consistently redirects and uses healthy language themselves
  • Plays with feces; purposely urinates outside of toilet bowl
  • Asking peer/adult to engage in specific sexual act(s)

Concerning Sexual Behavior – ages 10 – 13 years

  • Attempting to expose others
  • Preoccupation with masturbation
  • Mutual masturbation with peer/group
  • Seeking out pornography
  • Taking nude sexual images of self
  • Talking about fear of pregnancy or STI
  • Persistent explicit talk/art/play that is sexual or sexually intimidating
  • Changes in behavior (e.g., flirting with adults)
  • Oral sex/intercourse with similar age peer
  • Continually touching self in public, even after repeated redirection; rubs genitals on furniture or other objects
  • Draws genitalia on some nude figures but not others and on drawings of clothed people; genitals may be drawn disproportionate to size of body
  • Asking peer/adult to engage in specific sexual act(s)

EXTREMELY CONCERNING Sexual Behavior

The following lists include behaviors that are “red flag” behaviors, indicative of child sexual acting out behaviors. These may be indicators of sexual abuse or another issue related to the child’s sexuality and need assessed right away.

EXTREMELY CONCERNING Sexual Behavior – ages 0 – 4 years

  • Disclosure of sexual abuse
  • Compulsive masturbation/self-injurious
  • Persistent explicit themes in talk/art/play
  • Simulation of sexual touch/activity (with or without clothes)
  • Persistently touching private parts of others
  • Oral sex with other children
  • Forcing other children to engage in sexual activity
  • Sexual knowledge is too great for age
  • Sexual behavior is associated with physical aggression
  • Any sexual behavior involving children who are 4 or more years apart
  • A variety of sexual behaviors displayed on a daily or near-daily basis
  • Behaviors are persistent and child becomes angry if distracted

EXTREMELY CONCERNING Sexual Behavior – ages 5 – 9 years

  • Disclosure of sexual abuse
  • Touching self in exclusion of normal childhood activities
  • Seeking an audience
  • Forcing other children to play sexual games
  • Rubbing genitals on other people
  • Accessing/showing pornography
  • Cyberbullying/grooming other children
  • Persistent bullying involving sexual aggression
  • Persistent sexual activity with animals
  • Endless questions about sex after curiosity is satisfied; sexual knowledge too great for age
  • Forces another child to play doctor, to take off clothes
  • Refuses to put on clothes; exposes self in public
  • Repeatedly plays with or smears feces; purposely urinates on furniture
  • Drawings of intercourse, group sex… sadism, masochism shown
  • Any sexual behavior involving children who are 4 or more years apart
  • A variety of sexual behaviors displayed on a daily or near-daily basis
  • Behaviors are persistent and child becomes angry if distracted

EXTREMELY CONCERNING Sexual Behavior – ages 10 – 13 years

  • Disclosure of sexual abuse
  • Compulsive masturbation, may be in public or private, to the exclusion of normal childhood activities
  • Force or coercion into sexual activity
  • Sexual contact with animals
  • Repeated/chronic peeping
  • Making others watch pornography
  • Touching other children’s genitals without permission
  • Forcing others to expose genitals
  • Penetration of dolls, other children, or animals
  • Oral sex/intercourse with person of different age or developmental ability
  • Refuses to put on clothes; exposes self in public
  • Repeatedly plays with or smears feces; purposely urinates on furniture
  • Rubbing genitals on other people
  • Any sexual behavior involving children who are 4 or more years apart
  • A variety of sexual behaviors displayed on a daily or near-daily basis
  • Behaviors are persistent and child becomes angry if distracted

“Typical” Sexual Behavior

Although parents and caregivers become concerned when a child displays sexual behavior, it is important to remember that some behaviors aren’t uncommon in developing children. Much sexual play with peers is an expression of their natural curiosity and should not be cause for concern.

According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, in general, “typical” sexual play and exploration:

  • occurs between kids who play together regularly and know each other well
  • occurs between kids of the same general age and physical size
  • is spontaneous and unplanned
  • is infrequent
  • is voluntary (the children agreed to the behavior and no one seems upset or uncomfortable)
  • is easily diverted when caregivers tell children to stop and explain privacy rules (the children are easily redirected)

Sexual Behavior Problems

Sadly, some childhood sexual behaviors do indicate more than harmless curiosity, however. Sexual behavior problems may pose a risk to the safety and well-being of the child and other children. Sexual behavior problems include any act that:

  • is clearly beyond the child’s developmental stage (for example, a three-year-old attempting to kiss an adult’s genitals)
  • includes threats, force, or aggression
  • involves children of widely different ages or abilities (generally 4 or more years apart in age, such as a 12-year-old “playing doctor” with a four-year-old)
  • Provokes strong emotional reactions in the child, such as anger or anxiety

Please be aware that while sexual abuse can be a cause of sexually reactive behavior or other sexually challenging behaviors, it is not always the case.

Responding to Your Child’s Sexual Behavior

If for some reason your child displays an inappropriate sexual behavior, the following list provides some guidelines for responses.

Guidelines to Follow If You Find Your Child Engaged in Sexual Behavior

The first step is to try to find out what actually happened. It’s important for parents to stay calm. After gathering your own emotions and making sure they’re under control, a parent might calmly tell the children that it’s time to get dressed and then ask the children to separate and go into a different room in the house. After collecting your thoughts – and consulting with your partner, if one is available – the parent could then talk to each child one-on-one.

Here are some questions to ask your child(ten):

  • What were you doing?
  • How did you get the idea?
  • How did you learn about this?
  • How did you feel about doing it?

It’s important to remain calm and keep an even tone of voice. Ask open-ended questions as much as possible, which allows the child(ten) to tell what happened in their own words (not just answering yes or no).

If You Are Still Concerned

If you believe your child’s sexual behavior is not typical or age appropriate, and believe he or she may have experienced a form of sexual abuse, contact the appropriate authorities, which include police, a medical professional (such as going to the hospital), your local Child Advocacy Center, and Child Protective Services. If you’re still not sure, consult, consult, consult! It never hurts to contact an appropriate professional or authority to get further consultation. A counselor or social worker experienced in working with abused children is often a good contact, even if it’s your first contact with the mental health professional. I get calls like this in my own office from time to time, and I promise, I don’t mind talking to you. They may ask for you and/or your child to come in for a consultation just to gather more information, but please don’t let this intimidate or frighten you. We just don’t want to guide you wrong and we want to be thorough. The Child Advocacy Center in your area is also an excellent resource to contact with questions or concerns.

Stay tuned for future posts about preventing sexual abuse and/or revictimization. And, please, if you have any questions, contact someone who can help and who can provide you with accurate information.

Monongalia County Child Advocacy Center 1-800-352-6513

www.monocac.org/ 

Email: [email protected]

Morgantown Police Department 304-284-7522 (or 9-1-1)

Monongalia County Sheriff’s Office  304-291-7260 (or 9-1-1)

West Virginia State Police 304-285-3200 (or 9-1-1)

Creative Resilience Counseling, LLC  304-292-4050

www.creativeresiliencecounseling.com

Email: [email protected]

Special thanks to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Please check out their site, they are a WEALTH OF INFORMATION about child sexual abuse and other childhood trauma!

Additional thanks to ,Educate2Empower.

They are an excellent resource for educational materials on child sexual abuse and prevention!

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