children playing with blocks

Child Sexual Development (How kids develop sexually)

Inside: Sexual development in children is a healthy and normal part of growing up. Find out what's healthy and when to worry (or not).

Sexuality begins at birth. 

Just as your child develops physically, emotionally and socially (like learning how to walk and talk and to share) they will also develop sexually (like learning the differences between  male and female bodies, being curious about where babies come from and touching their genitals).

Which means that sometimes you might see your child  doing something that looks sexual to you. 

The challenge for parents, is in knowing what is healthy (or unhealthy) behaviour and how to guide your child's development so that they stay safe.

This blogpost looks at the different stages of child sexual devleopment and will help you to work out when to worry (or not).

You’ll find more information about sex education in my Sex Education 101 page.

The different stages of child sexual development

As parents, it is important that you understand the stages of sexual development your child will go through and at what age. This way you will then know what to expect plus you'll also be able to support your child as they adjust to the changes that growing up can bring. 

Source: Wholesome Bodies

Birth to 3 year olds

Most children of this age will:

  • Be curious and explore their own body and other people's bodies.
  • Experience an erection or vaginal lubrication.
  • Rub their genitals or touch their genitals because it may feel nice or it provides them with security.
  • Talk openly about their bodies and bodily functions.
  • Learn the appropriate names for body parts eg head, nose, penis, vulva, etc.
  • Start to differentiate between male and female and explore gender identity.
  • Begin to empathise with others in need of caring.
child and pregnant tummy

'How did the baby get inside there?'

4 to 5 year olds

Most children of this age will:

  • Experience vaginal lubrication or erection.
  • Touch their genitals and engage in some form of genital rubbing for pleasure.
  • Feel curious about where babies come from and how they were born.
  • Play games like playing doctor where they can explore the body.
  • Most, but not all, children will begin to feel sure of their own gender identity and have the ability to recognise males and females.
  • Begin to recognise and distinguish cultural male and female gender roles.
  • Become conscious of their own body, how it appears to others, and how it works.
  • Comfort others in distress.
  • Make choices that give a sense of influence over their lives.
  • Like themself and have a growing sense of being valued by others.

6 - 8 year olds

Most children of this age will:

  • Recognise the social stigmas and taboos surrounding sexuality. If parents are nervous or avoiding the topic, they are less likely to ask them questions.
  • Understand more complex ideas with regard to sexuality and begin to understand sexual intercourse and sexual activity apart from making a baby.
  • Look to peers, media, and other sources for information about sexuality.
  • Understand cultural gender role stereotypes, and be able to identify when someone is “outside of the box” in their gender expression.
  • May engage in same-gender sexual exploration.
  • Have a stronger self-concept in terms of gender and body image.
  • Be concerned about fairness.
  • Begin to accept and take responsibility for behavior and actions.
  • Learn about self-control.
  • Have a growing sense of influence over some things that happen in their lives.
  • Like themself and feel valued by others.

9 - 12 year olds

Most children of this age will:

  • Have an emerging sense of self as a young adult.
  • Feel conscious of their sexuality and how they choose to express it.
  • Understand jokes with sexual content.
  • Feel concerns about being normal, such as whether it is normal to masturbate, have wet dreams, etc.
  • Feel anxious and curious about puberty, when it will happen, how it will occur, how to be prepared, etc
  • Compare their body with other bodies and try to define what is “normal”.
  • Become influenced by media messages regarding sexuality.
  • Be curious about differences they see in family and friends sexuality values versus others.
  • Feel shy about asking questions of parents, especially regarding sexuality, and may act like they already know all the answers.
  • Value privacy highly.
  • Be concerned about equality of all people.
  • Begin to accept and take responsibility for behavior and actions.
  • Exhibit empathy, sensitivity and friendship skills.
  • Have influence over things that happen in their lives.

13 - 18 year olds

Most children of this age will:

  • Understand that they are sexual and understand the options and many of the consequences of sexual expression including gender identity, intimacy with boyfriends, girlfriends and other friends, sexual orientation, and sexualsation.
  • Choose to express and explore their sexuality in ways that may or may not include sexual activity.
  • Recognise the components of supportive or controlling relationships and have the capacity to learn about intimate, loving, long-term relationships.
  • Have a clear understanding of pregnancy and of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and the possible consequences of sexual intercourse, and the ability to make reasoned choices about sex based on knowledge.
  • Recognise the role media play in propagating views about sexuality.
  • Struggle with issues around body image.
  • Have an understanding of their own sexual orientation and develop a stronger gender identity.
  • Be more comfortable seeking advice from parents and other adults.
  • Seek information from the internet and other sources.
  • Place a high value on promoting equality of all people.
  • Accept and take responsibility for behavior and actions.
  • Have control over things that happen in their lives.
  • Exhibit empathy, sensitivity and friendship skills.
  • Have influence over things that happen in their lives.
doctors holding babies

Children develop physically, emotionally, socially and sexually.

Healthy and unhealthy sexual behaviours

It is common for parents to be concerned about whether a sexual behaviour is healthy or unhealthy. That is, should they worry (or not).

Healthy behaviours reflect safe and healthy sexual development, where redirection of the behaviour by the parent is all that is usually required.  

For example, your child may have discovered that touching their genitals can feel nice when watching the the cartoons in the lounge. As a parent, you might teach them that this is a private activity that should only happen in their bedroom.

Unhealthy behaviours have the potential to be or are already outside of safe and healthy behaviour. These behaviours can increase the child’s vulnerability or cause harm to another child. 

For example, your child might  masturbate quite openly in public, regardless of your request that they don't.  This upsets other people but it also puts your child at risk of inappropriate sexual touch.

Sometimes though, it can be hard to tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy sexual behaviour.

In general, healthy or typical childhood sexual play and exploration:

  • occurs between children who play together regularly and know each other well
  • occurs between children of the same general age and physical size
  • is spontaneous and unplanned
  • is infrequent
  • is voluntary (the children agreed to the behaviour, none of the involved children seem uncomfortable or upset)
  • is easily diverted when parents tell children to stop and explain privacy rules

What do unhealthy behaviours mean?

Unhealthy behaviours can signal a problem.

Unhealthy behaviours will not just go away on their own.

They need to be addressed for the safety of your own child and possibly even the safety of other children.

Identifying  them early on can help to prevent further harmful sexual behaviours from developing. 

Why do unhealthy behaviours happen?

Many factors influence sexual behaviour.

Some of these factors, or others, may be behind the unhealthy behaviour:

  • lack of accurate sexuality information
  • lack of privacy
  • boredom, loneliness, anxiety, confusion or depression
  • curiosity
  • sexual excitement
  • lack of social skills
  • medical needs
  • conflict in relationships
  • confusion about sexuality, relationships and sexual activities
  • lack of rules, appropriate consequences or boundaries
  • lack of information about the risks of the behaviour
  • overexposure to explicit sexual activity and materials
  • communication difficulties
  • sexual excitement or curiosity
  • lack of adult supervision and support
  • emotional, physical or sexual abuse or neglect
  • lack of consistency across environments
  • anxiety about adult or family relationships
  • gender issues
  • copying the behaviour of other children and young people
  • copying behaviours seen on the internet or TV
parents shocked with their child's sexual development

They did what?

How to manage sexual behaviours

Sexual behaviours sometimes need to be managed. For example, it might be okay to rub your genitals but not at the kitechen table. 

So  if a sexual beahviour make syou feel uncomfortable, you need to ask yourself two questions:

  1. Is it a problem?
  2. Does it need to stop?

If your answer to either or both of the questions is ‘yes’, then you need to do something about the behaviour. 

If you’re ever unsure about your child's sexual development and/or behaviour, the Traffic Lights App by True Relationships & Reproductive Health is a fantastic tool that you can use to work out whether you should worry or not.

What you do, depends on the behaviour and the reason behind the behaviour.

Healthy behaviour usually requires redirection of the behaviour by the parent. So you might suggest to your child that instead of touching their genitals at the kitchen table, that they should instead do it somewhere private, like in their bedroom. 

Unhealthy behaviour should be investigated by a specialist to identify the reason for the behaviour and the most appropriate intervention.

Resources

My mission is to create resources that will help you to naturally talk to your kids about sex, all while respecting your personal values.

Which means that inside this website, you'll find lots of resources to help you with talking to your child about love, sex, relationships and growing up.

My Sex Education 101 page includes all of the information on sex education. You'll find lots of different blogposts to help with getting started, on a wide range of different topics.

You'll find videos about sex ed in my Sex Education Videos resource page that you can watch with your child or to learn more about sex education yourself.

You’ll also find an extensive range of sex education books for children, for kids of all ages. There's even some books in there for parents!

If you're looking for some ideas on how to talk to your child about bodies, How to Talk to Kids About Bodies, will help you to start naming the private body parts and to have shame-free conversations with them about bodies. It is filled with lots of different ideas on how to have natural converasations with your child about their body. 

You'll also find some child friendly anatomically-correct cartoon illustrations of the genitals and internal reproductive organs that are appropriate for children from the age of 3 and up. Let's Look at Different Body Parts is a printable that will help take the awkward out of talking to your child about their body, so they grow up feeling educated, confident, and comfortable in their own skin.

If you need some help with explaining sexual intercourse to your child, then How to Talk to Kids About Sex, will help you explain sex to your child in a way they will understand. It breaks it down into simple steps that  take the stress out of explaining!

If you're unsure about how to answer your child's questions about sex, then I have a number of different resources that will give you word-for-word answers that are age specific.

If you want a printed book to hold in your hands, then the  The Sex Education Answer Book will give you age-specific answers to the most common questions kid's ask parents about sex. Which means you don't need to worry about finding a child-friendly explanation that your child understands. 

If you want the answers to questions about a lot more than just sex, then Sex Ed Quickies is your best option. It has answers to 300+ questions  that kids commonly ask parents,  including how babies are made, sexual intercourse, body parts, puberty, relationships, pregnancy, birth, masturbation, sexual diversity, gender, pornography, STIs, contraception and much more.

References

  • Children’s Sexual Development and Behaviour – Pants Aren’t Rude by Pam Linke 2015.
  • From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children by Debra Hafner 2000.
  • Handbook of Child and Adolescent Sexuality; Developmental and Forensic Psychology edited by Bromberg & O’Donohue 2013.
  • Understanding Your Child’s Sexual behaviour: What’s Natural and Healthy by Toni Cavanagh Johnson 1999.
  • Where Do I Start? Supporting Healthy Sexual Development in Early Childhood by Family Planning QLD 2009.

About the Author Cath Hakanson

I'm Cath, a sex educator living in Australia with my husband and 2 kids. I help parents to talk about sex (with less cringe and more confidence) and empower their child to make smart sexual decisions. To find a better way to talk about sex, you can join my community of parents and visit my shop for helpful resources.

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