What Is Age-Appropriate Sexual Curiosity?

by | Oct 6, 2016 | Internet Safety Tips

As parents navigate how their children are exposed to sexual content, sexual education, and manage their child’s sexual development, it can be difficult to determine if the sexual behaviors of your children are typical or indications of a problem, or even abuse. Children learn about the world through exploratory play, and that includes exploratory sexual play. The challenge is to respond in a way that invites open communication and understanding when behavior is age-appropriate sexual curiosity or whether your child is in need of professional help.

Concerned in particular about sexting? We have an article about what to do if you discover your child is sexting.

Stages of Sexual Behavior in Children

Preschool (ages 0-5)

Common Behaviors

  • Curiosity about bodies and bodily functions, may want to touch or see other people’s bodies
  • Ask a lot of question about body parts, hygiene, toileting, pregnancy, and birth
  • Show their genitals to others
  • Explore genitals by touch and can experience pleasure
  • In their play they may act out what they have seen (kissing, arguing, etc)

Uncommon Behaviors

  • Knowledge of specific sexual acts or explicit sexual language
  • Engaging with other children in adult-like sexual contact
  • Sexual behavior that involves children who are 4 or more years apart
  • Sexual behaviors that involve coercion

Early school-age (5-9)

Common Behaviors

  • Full of curiosity and questions
  • Peer touching, making dirty jokes (usually not fully understood), and talking with their friends about sexual touching and behaviors
  • Begin to experience sexual arousal when touching themselves
  • Experience inhibition and the need for privacy
  • Become more aware of sexual preference

Uncommon Behaviors

  • Adult-like sexual interactions
  • Having knowledge of specific sexual acts
  • Public display of sexual behaviors (including through the use of technology)
  • Sexual behavior that involves children who are 4 or more years apart
  • Sexual behavior that involves coercion

Preadolescence (9-12)

Common Behaviors

  • Will want knowledge on sexual materials, relationships, and sexual behaviors
  • Increased interest in sex and begin to experiment with other children their same age
  • Puberty can begin as early as age nine
  • Comparing genital size and function, “locker room behavior”
  • Older children may engage in petting, French kissing, touching or rubbing each other’s bodies, and dry humping
  • Continue to touch themselves, though often feel embarrassed and deny they are doing it

Uncommon Behaviors

  • Sexual behaviors between children of widely different ages or abilities
  • An interest toward much younger children (4 years or more)
  • Involves threats, force, or aggression
  • Has a strong aggressive or anxious emotional reaction toward sexual behaviors
  • Behaving sexually in a public place

Adolescence (13-16)

Common Behaviors

  • Asking questions and needing information on decision making, social relationships, and sexual customs
  • Continues to touch themselves in private
  • Girls begin menstruation and boys will begin to produce sperm
  • Sexual experimentation between children of the same age and gender
  • Voyeuristic behaviors
  • First sexual intercourse will occur for approximately one third of teens

Uncommon Behaviors

  • Masturbation in public
  • Sexual interest toward much younger children
  • Non-consensual sexual behaviors

How to Respond

If you see your child engaging in sexual behavior respond in a calm manner and ask open ended questions. Not all sexual behaviors, even uncommon ones, are an indication of abuse. A healthy response by a parent can have positive long-term effects on guiding sexual development and eliminating problem behaviors. Ways to manage the interaction include:

  • Redirecting the activity to something appropriate, this also allows you time to find a healthy way to respond
  • Find a quiet time to talk to your child and ask open ended questions like: How did you get the idea? Or How did you learn about this? Or How did you feel doing it?
  • Educate your children about sexual issues in an age appropriate manner. Talking openly with your child provides them with the knowledge and skills to make good decisions.
  • Consider the age and stage development of your child, if the behavior is beyond what is typical, speaking to a child therapist or physician may be of help.

It may feel uncomfortable talking about sex with your children, but a healthy parental response provides education and direction. As you set boundaries for your kids regarding their sexual behavior, the use of resources and information on the stages of sexual development are key in understanding how to react. Using Bark to monitor your child’s social media and email accounts and text messages, means you will get alerts on any explicit sexual content they are posting or texting. Use alerts to start a conversation with them about healthy sexual behaviors where they are at. Positive clear messages about boundaries, privacy and consent are an important part of creating open communication on your child’s sexual development and experiences.

Resources

NCTSN.Org
Fairfax County Family Services

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