Sexual behaviour in children and young people

Sexual behaviour in children and young people

It is natural for children to express their sexuality and their interest in the differences between the sexes through their behaviour. How they do this depends on their stage of development. It is important to understand the difference between normal sexual behaviour and behaviour outside the expected range in each age group.

Key points to remember about sexual behaviour in children and young people

  • expressing sexuality through sexual behaviour is natural, healthy and a basic aspect of being human
  • it is normal for children to develop their understanding of sex differences and sexuality just as they develop in other areas
  • sometimes children show sexual behaviours that appear to be outside the normal range - it is important to understand why this is happening
  • sometimes these behaviours are a response to a child or young person's exposure to sexual experiences that are inappropriate for their age - this can include sexual abuse but sexual abuse is not always the reason for abnormal sexual behaviour

Normal sexual behaviour in children

Children are curious and always wanting to learn. One of the first things they want to learn about is their bodies. They are curious about the function of each part of their body. They are curious about why their body is different from a parent or sibling of the opposite sex. We think of this as sexual because we look at this from an adult viewpoint. For a child, this is just curiosity. It just happens that some of the things that they are curious about have sexual functions.

Children may express healthy sexual behaviour in a number of ways, through play and relationships. How they do this depends on their stage of development.  

Understanding the reasons behind a child's sexual behaviour is important. When children do not have the language, experience or ability to seek help, adults must carefully interpret the behaviour to check if the behaviour is out of the expected range.

Normal and healthy sexual behaviours in children by age group

Children 0-4 years of age

Children at this stage often:

  • feel comfortable being naked
  • enjoy touching their own genitals
  • may want to touch the genitals of other children or adults who they are familiar with
  • are interested in their father's penis, especially if they do not have one
  • may touch women's breasts
  • are interested in watching when adults get undressed

Children 5-9 years of age

Children in this age group may:

  • start to want privacy when going to the toilet or showering
  • masturbate in private
  • show curiosity about sexuality (for example, ask questions about babies, gender and relationships)

Children 10-13 years of age

Children in this age group may:

  • use sexual language
  • show an interest in girlfriend/boyfriend relationships
  • masturbate in private

Young people 14-17 years of age

Young people in this age group may:

  • view materials for sexual arousal
  • have clear and detailed conversations about sex with friends
  • get involved in sexual activity with a partner of a similar age

Masturbation and children

Masturbation is one of the most common sexual behaviours that parents seek advice about. Children under 5 years of age may masturbate in public because they are not yet aware that this is not socially acceptable. Older children may also do this but it is less likely.

Masturbation is a self-soothing behaviour so it can increase when children are unsettled or feel stressed.  Masturbation might become more frequent when parents separate or there is a custody dispute.  At such times, parents or others can mistakenly interpret this as a sign that sexual abuse has happened.  Although that is a possibility in some cases, it is also important to try and find out what other things might be causing stress for your child.

When frequent masturbation happens in these situations, it is best to provide support for your child and distract them with other activities. You can also ask them to limit the behaviour to when they are in their bedroom in private. Masturbation is of concern if your child finds it hard to stop, or when it is vigorous enough to cause self-harm.

Sexual behaviours in children which are out of the normal range

Children and young people expressing the following behaviours need assessment. The goal of the assessment is to reach an understanding about the origin of these behaviours. This will usually need a specialist psychological or medical assessment and may need a referral for investigation by Oranga Tamariki or the police.

Children 0-4 years of age

You may be concerned about children in this age group who are:

  • masturbating compulsively or to the point of causing self-injury
  • pretending to have (simulating) sexual activity
  • forcing other children to engage in sexual activity
  • often touching the genitals of others

Children 5-9 years of age

You may be concerned about children in this age group who:

  • are engaging in sexual behaviour with children significantly younger than them
  • have sexual activity with animals
  • are entering the rooms of sleeping children to engage in touch or sexual activity with the other child

Children 10-13 years of age

You may be concerned about children in this age group who are:

  • masturbating compulsively
  • forcing others into sexual activity
  • exchanging money or goods for sexual activity
  • sending or publishing sexual images of themselves or another person

Young people aged 14-17 of age

You may be concerned about young people in this age group who are:

  • preoccupied with sexually aggressive material or illegal pornography
  • engaging in sexual activity with children significantly younger than them
  • forcing others into sexual activity - this can include criminal activity

The content on this page is based on the Brook sexual behaviours traffic light tool. This tool has been developed for health professionals but may be of interest to parents or caregivers wanting more detailed information about how to tell the difference between normal sexual behaviour and concerning behaviour. The content on this page has been approved by the Clinical Network for Child Protection, Paediatric Society New Zealand. 

This page last reviewed 29 September 2017.
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