Child Sexual Development

Child Sexual Development – What You Need to Know

Normal child sexual development is an important part of a child’s growth and learning. Understanding what appropriate childhood sexual behavior is and what is not can help parents guide their children in healthy, safe ways.

Generally speaking, normal child sexual development includes exploring one’s own body and the bodies of other children in non-sexual ways, such as touching and looking. It also includes asking questions about sexual topics, having crushes and fantasies of romantic relationships with peers, and experimenting with gender roles or clothes. All these behaviors are considered normal for childhood development. However, parents should be aware that some of these activities may need to be supervised depending on the age of the children involved.

Unwanted touching, exposing oneself sexually, coercing someone into sexual activity, talking about sex excessively or in an uncomfortable way, and other violent or aggressive sexual behavior toward children are all considered inappropriate.

If a child’s sexual behavior seems beyond typical curiosity, it may be a sign of abuse or exposure to inappropriate sexual activity.

Sexual behavior problems in young children include any act that:

  • Occurs frequently and cannot be redirected
  • Causes emotional or physical pain or injury to themselves or others
  • Is associated with physical aggression
  • Involves coercion or force
  • Simulates adult sexual acts

Body Safety Teaching Tips for Parents

Consider the child’s age, developmental ability, and/or peer grouping when teaching them about body safety. Additionally, parents should explain that sending and/or publishing sexual images of themselves or another person is inappropriate behavior.

If you believe your child is exhibiting any of these behaviors, The National Child Traumatic Stress Network offers an array of information on Understanding and Coping with Sexual Behavior Problems in Children. Though you can’t be there always to protect them, what you CAN do is instill the right mindset in your child, so they know what unsafe situations look like.

It’s important to remember that childhood sexuality is a complex topic and can be confusing for both parents and children alike. If you are ever concerned about your child’s behavior, it’s always best to consult with a professional who can evaluate the situation and offer advice. This way, you will be better equipped to help your child navigate childhood sexual development in a healthy and safe way.

Generally Appropriate Behaviors in Young Children (up to age 6)

  • Kissing other children
  • Touching, holding, or rubbing their own genitals/masturbation
  • Touching parts of another child’s body with the child’s consent because they are curious (You show me yours/I’ll show you mine)
  • Playing doctor or other games that involve exploring each other’s bodies

Inappropriate Behaviors in Young Children (up to age 6)

  • Tongue kissing
  • Repeatedly acting out a particular sexual act during play
  • Any kind of penetration with body parts
  • Any sexual behavior that occurs frequently and persistently
  • Any sexual behavior that involves force or coercion to get another child to comply

Help is Available

Remember – you don’t have to go it alone. If a child has disclosed abuse to you, and you are not sure what to do, or you would like guidance and/or support, please call our 24/7 HOTLINE at: 215-985-3333.

Other Resources:

Darkness to Light Helpline 
1-866-FOR-LIGHT or text LIGHT to 741741
 24/7 assistance providing local resource referrals and answering questions.

 Serving the United States, its territories, and Canada, the hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week providing assistance in over 170 languages. All calls are confidential. Childhelp website includes a list of child protective services phone numbers by state.