Sexual Behaviours in Young Children – When to be Worried

Understanding Sexual Behaviours

It can be difficult for parents to know when their child’s behaviour is inappropriate or harmful can’t it?  We’ve all heard our little ones make comments like “Why does he have a willy and I don’t?”  or “My mummy has big boobies!” and of course we have all gone through that stage where the child thinks it really funny to keep repeating the words “bum, boobs, tits, willy etc” over and over again for weeks on end!  However, these are all normal healthy things that each child goes through during their development. Every child is different and may become interested in relationships, sex and sexuality at slightly different ages. Children these days though, are more likely to come across sexual photos, and images, videos or even pornography, so it is extremely important that parents are careful about protecting their youngsters. It can be easy for parents to talk with their children about the differences between right and wrong, but it is often more difficult for parents to talk with their children about sexual development.  

At a very young age, children begin to explore their bodies by touching, stroking, pulling, and rubbing their body parts, including their genitals. As children grow older, they will need guidance in learning about these body parts and their functions.

Behaviours that you would expect to see

Here is a list of what are normal, common sexual behaviours in children from 2 years old to 6 or 7 years old. When these things happen, just try to redirect your child’s attention to something else. You could say something like “Now that you are getting a big boy its best to do that sort of thing in private – when you are on your own.” And always say to him “ It’s not ok to touch other peoples private parts and so if anyone ever touches yours you must tell mummy or daddy”

This is normal for 2 – 6 yr olds.

  • Touching/masturbating genitals in public or private
  • Looking at or touching a peer’s or new sibling’s genitals
  • Showing genitals to peers
  • Standing or sitting too close to someone
  • Trying to see peers or adults naked

Inappropriate behaviours

Sometimes, children can develop sexual behaviours that are inappropriate for their age. Here are some signs that a child’s sexual behaviour may be unhealthy and unacceptable.

  • Sexual interest in children of a very different age group to theirs.
  • Behaviour that upsets other children like touching them in private places
  • Using force or aggression in play
  • Sexual behaviour that’s becoming a regular habit.
  • Constantly using verbal sexual phrases
  • Sending sexual images on- line
  • Sending explicit images of themselves on their phone even to a close friend.

Being told that your child has been using inappropriate behaviour, especially if another child is actually involved, can be very hard for any parent to cope with, especially if your child has abused another child. If this is the case, you MUST seek professional help ASAP.

Sometimes the child won’t understand that his behaviour is harmful to others or inappropriate. A child may have been sexually abused themselves and won’t comprehend that what happened to them was wrong.

Reasons why a child won’t talk about sexual abuse if it’s happened to them:

  • The child may feel he is to blame.
  • He may be worried as he may have been drinking and thinks he might be in trouble for that.
  • The child may worry that he won’t be taken seriously.
  • He may think he actually gave consent.
  • The child will be frightened they are not believed.
  • The person who committed the abuse was perhaps a so- called friend or family member.

Body safety education

Parents should teach their children about “body safety” between the ages of 3-6 years old.

Here are a few tips:

  1. Use language that your child will understand but at the same time make sure you teach your child the proper names for all the parts of the body, including things such as genitals, vagina, penis, buttocks, breasts and private parts. Make sure your child knows which parts of the body are private (for example those covered up with pants and bras, or a swim – suit)
  1. Don’t push your child to be affectionate. If your child doesn’t want to show affection to someone (no matter who it is) you shouldn’t force them. It’s their body and even if grandma or grandad are trying to hug and kiss them it is up to the child whether he does it or not.
  1. Respect your children’s modesty. If you have more than one child, obviously the older ones as they are growing up will need their privacy and even though some families do freely wonder around the house with next to no clothes on, it’s a good idea to teach your children when it is and isn’t ok to be displaying their bodies.
  1. The difference between a good touch and a bad touch. You can explain that a good touch is a way that people show they care for each other like a hug, or holding hands, or changing a baby’s nappy etc) but a bad touch is something that doesn’t feel good like someone hitting you, kicking you, or touching your private parts) Tell your child that most touches will be ok but if they ever feel uncomfortable or someone is hurting them or touching their private parts they MUST say NO very loudly and then come and tell you or another family member.
  1. Best place for the talks is in the bathroom when kids are having their bath/wash or at bedtime. Make sure you have a talk with them before any new event like joining a new dance class or a gymnastics club!
  1. Don’t laugh at the child’s questions. Treat these talks seriously and don’t laugh (even though you may want to) if the child asks a funny question. Keep your answers brief and don’t go into TOO much detail.
  1. Repeat these talks every now and then so you ensure the child has taken it in – personal body safety is very important.

Rest assured that if you teach your children how to look after themselves and to respect their bodies and everyone else’s, you will have given them a good start to personal safety. If you are worried about a child who is displaying sexual behaviours that shouldn’t really be happening – do contact me – even if I can just confirm that it’s something you needn’t worry too much about. If you have a child that has been abused do make sure he or she receives therapy either from someone such as myself or a children’s counsellor.

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