Appropriate Sexual Development in Children
Patience Domowski, LCSW
Often parents wonder if their child’s curiosity about their body parts, or other people’s body parts is normal or a concern. What sexual exploration is normal, and what is a major red flag? Certainly some curiosity and comparison is normal in young children, but how much is too far? Also what should parents do about it? Sexual development occurs from infancy on up, however what is normal or appropriate varies by age.
It is normal for toddlers and preschoolers (ages 2-5) to want to be naked, check their genitals out, and ask about them. They may be curious about their parents body parts and want to touch their mother’s breasts, or check out their sibling’s different genitals. It is typical for children at this age to explore their bodies and want to see others, or play ‘doctor’ and examine each other. It is not normal or okay for any aggressiveness in this play, or having toys act out sexual acts at this age. It would not be normal for them to want to show their body parts to a much older peer, or talk about sex specifically.
At this age parents should teach the proper body parts names- slang terms are fine but it’s also good for the child to know the real names for their body parts. Teaching children when it’s okay to be naked (bath time) and when not (in public) is a good idea at this age. Teaching appropriate personal space as well and proper boundaries is important. Parents should point out that it’s not polite to grab someone’s bottom, or put their hand up someone’s shirt for example. Parents shouldn't try to shame or upset their children as they are naturally exploring and testing boundaries. Parents should just teach appropriate touching and boundaries calmly. Teaching children that hugs and kisses are for close family, and if they don't want to, that’s okay. It's not usually a good idea to force a child to hug or kiss anyone (such as an extended relative they don't know).
By elementary school age (ages 6-10) however children should be aware it's not okay to be naked publicly, they usually have some sense of wanting privacy when using the bathroom and changing. At this age they may want to touch and explore their own body parts. Boys are more likely to fondle their genitals than girls. It should be taught to children at this age that if they want to touch themselves to do so in the bathroom, or the privacy of their bedroom. Children should not have their hands down their pants in public, and it's not okay to be scratching body parts very visibly. Parents should respect and encourage privacy of children and start to have different gendered siblings dress in separate spaces. Children may be curious and want to peek at people changing or see naked pictures and think its funny.
At this age children can be taught “Good touch/Bad touch” and that no one should touch their private area unless helping them stay safe or healthy. For example ‘staying safe and healthy’ means that parents may need to help them bathe, (though at this age they should be starting to be able to bathe themselves with some minor supervision), and doctors may need to check out their bodies to make sure they are healthy, or an emergency responder may have to touch them in certain cases (car accident, for example) to help them if they are hurt. However no one else should be touching you anywhere on your body that a bathing suit covers. Children should be taught that if anyone tries to touch them in a way that make them uncomfortable they should tell their parents right away.
Children should also be taught at this age that is not typically appropriate to hug and kiss peers at school. They may hug close friends and family, but should not be holding hands or hugging all their classmates, and should not be kissing anyone outside the family at this age (some exceptions may apply). Parents should answer any questions children have about sex and body development as age appropriately as possible giving some a basic understanding but not too many details.
Many parents teach their children about ‘stranger danger’, however statistically children are more likely to be abused by someone they know, so it’s important to teach appropriate boundaries for themselves regardless if they know the person or not. Just because someone is a close adult friend, neighbor, uncle, or staff at their daycare, doesn't mean they should allow the person to touch them in a way that is uncomfortable or in the ‘bathing suit zone’. Children can be told to tell the person who tries to touch them to please stop they don't like that, and then try to get away from the person immediately, and tell their parents or a trusted person at their school. It is usually not recommended for children to sleep in same bed with an opposite gendered person, especially if they are much older.
It would be a cause for concern, and not normal if an elementary school child was touching peer’s genitals at school, or showing off their body to someone much older than them (if it occurs normally it would be same age), or showing fear and excessive shyness around their genitals during bath and changing. It would not be normal for sexual acting out or language, or to be caught watching porn at this age.
In the middle school/preteen years (ages 9-13) children will likely want to know more about sex and their bodies. At this age parents should teach their kids about puberty and more about their body. Both boys and girls can be given information on periods, sex, and healthy relationships. It is important to teach children the family’s values and beliefs around sexual expression. Preteens may be interested in dating and relationships. Parents should set up what is expected for appropriate boundaries- though these boundaries and relationship values vary widely between families. Some parents are open to their child having sexual relationships at this age, though most are not. Some parents are fine with their child dating at a young age, but some would rather them wait. It is important to discuss values and the pros/cons of sexual involvement at this age, and not just rely on the school to provide the basics in sexual education.
Generally children at this age should be taught not to masturbate in public, not to touch anyone in a private area on their body, and not to allow anyone to touch them in a private area. They should learn ways to resist peer pressure and decide in advance how to handle any sexual advances by peers. Sex should be discussed such as how far to go (hand holding, hugging, kissing, touching, etc…) and when to give oneself sexually to someone else and how to make that decision. Parents should also teach some basics of contraception information, even if they are encouraging abstinence.
Sexual development and changes in genitalia usually occurs during preteen and teen years during puberty. Some children will develop earlier or faster than others and some children will be more interested in it than others. Encourage children to talk to parents or a trusted teacher about their questions and concerns. Keep the conversation dialog open throughout the teen years to help them navigate through difficult decision making and peer pressures and desires as they grow older.
At any age children will ask questions and be curious. It is helpful to answer questions as truthfully but appropriately as possible. While you probably don’t want to explain exactly where babies come from to your 5 yr old you can say that babies grow in mommy’s tummy for example, which is truthful versus ‘you came from the hospital’ or a ‘stork delivers babies’, or even brushing it off ‘I’ll tell you when you’re older’, ‘Ask your mother’, etc. There are plenty of books available written for children, especially preteens, to explain puberty, sex, and other questions that parents can provide to their child to read and discuss. Parents may feel uncomfortable answering questions but it is better for children to find out the truth from their parents than to get an incorrect answer from their peers on the school bus.
To keep children safe go over how to establish boundaries (not allowing others to touch them in their private areas) and avoid dangerous situations (don’t walk alone at night, for one example). It’s okay to ask your child if they have ever been touched in a way that was not comfortable or appropriate. To keep your child safe have child abuse clearances run on any babysitters, review appropriate boundaries before child has a sleepover, meet the families of children your child is friends with, don’t allow sleepovers without supervision, don’t allow children in the bathroom with other people that you don’t know and trust, and rely on your gut if anything seems off with the other person or your child’s reaction to others has changed. If your child is suddenly upset and afraid to visit someone that they normally love to see, that is something to explore. If a toddler/preschooler doesn't let mom help him wash in the bathtub, not due to being independent but is afraid and upset to have someone touch them, or seems fearful when diaper changed, that is a cause for concern.
If a child shows any inappropriate sexual behaviors ask your child about it in a calm way such as where they learned about that, and what they are doing. Sometimes it's a misunderstanding (example: they drew a large walking stick, not a penis, in front of grandpa, or: they meant to grab their friend’s leg to stop them from running and they pulled off thier pants by accident), and sometimes it’s a cause for alarm. Try to be calm so the child opens up and doesn't shut down or feel ashamed.
If parents have any concerns about their child’s behavior not seeming to be developmentally appropriate, the child has more knowledge of sexual things than what parents have taught them, or any changes in child's behavior that seems to indicate something suspicious having happened, parents should have their child evaluated by a professional such as the child’s doctor, a therapist, or guidance counselor. If the child has been sexually abused, or even if there is suspicion parents should report it to the appropriate authorities to investigate.
Other helpful resources: