What Is Age-Appropriate Sexual Curiosity?

December 06, 2020 | Internet Safety Tips

Age-appropriate sexual curiosity image with bird and bee

**This blog post was updated on August 27, 2021.**

Part of growing up is learning about and interacting with aspects of human sexuality. For parents, this can be stressful, confusing, and even scary — but rest assured it’s a normal part of being a kid. Children learn about the world through exploratory play, and that includes exploratory sexual play. Because of this, it’s important for parents to support their kids through every stage in their development, from preschool to high school. Knowing what to generally expect for age-appropriate sexual curiosity will help you gauge where your child is at. In this post, we’ll provide you with guideposts for what’s considered common behaviors for kids in each age range — as well as potential dangers like sexting and grooming.

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

Important Conversations to Have About Potential Dangers

Online predators

Sexual abuse by online predators is a danger that no parent wants to imagine happening to their child. Because of this, it’s important to educate yourself and your family about what these threats look like. One of the most crucial things you can do is make sure your kid knows they can always come to you for help no matter what’s happened.

Sexting

1 in 4 kids today is sexting — it’s essentially become the new first base for Gen Z. Whether you’ve discovered that your kid is sending nudes or you just want to be ready in case it happens, preparation is everything. One of the best ways to get ahead of this issue is to talk about it and discuss the dangers children may not always think about. Our blog posts about sending nudes and potential legal problems can answer your questions and provide you with support.

Consent

It’s never too early to talk to your kids about the concept of bodily consent — the conversation can always grow more comprehensive as they get older. For example, younger kids can understand not wanting to be tickled or always having to hug Aunt Martha. Older kids, on the other hand, can grasp more serious concepts regarding sexual boundaries. Our consent blog post is filled with conversation starters and advice for navigating this important subject. 

Sexual assault

It may be difficult to tell if your child has experienced sexual abuse, but watching out for some potential warning signs can help. If your kid has started wetting the bed again, avoids getting undressed, starts having extreme nightmares, or has new knowledge about sexual topics that aren’t usual for their age, something may be wrong.

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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 an online safety service like Bark can help you start a conversation about healthy sexual behaviors. 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 for Learning More About Age-Appropriate Sexual Curiosity

About Bark

Bark is a comprehensive online safety solution that empowers families to monitor content, manage screen time, and filter websites to help protect their kids online. Our mission is to give parents and guardians the tools they need to raise kids in the digital age.

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