Sexual Behaviors in Children: What's Normal?

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Many parents don't want to think about their children engaging in any kind of sexual behavior; however, some sexual expression is really, really normal. For boys and girls alike, most kids masturbate and explore their bodies even when they're as young as two years old. But what's normal sexual behavior and when should we worry?

A new clinical report released by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and titled "The Evaluation of Sexual Behaviors in Children" (Nancy D. Kellogg, MD, and the Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect) can help parents wade through the worry. Odds are, you probably have nothing to worry about.


According to the AAP report "The Evaluation of Sexual Behaviors in Children," "Most children will engage in sexual behaviors at some time during their childhood, and for more than half, it will be before their 13th birthday. While normal, these behaviors can be concerning to parents and disruptive to others." Others, also meaning us! — their parents. Am I right?

So how do we, as parents, distinguish between normal, age-appropriate sexual behaviors and others, which are possibly developmentally inappropriate and/or abusive? Well, this new report, which offers detailed guidance to pediatricians, outlines the difference between normal, common sexual behaviors and others that may require further assessment and/or and treatment from a professional.

Examples of Sexual Behaviors in Children 2 to 6 Years of Age

Normal, Common Behaviors

  • Touching/masturbating genitals in public/private
  • Viewing/touching peer or new sibling genitals
  • Showing genitals to peers
  • Standing/sitting too close
  • Trying to view peer/adult nudity
  • Behaviors are transient, few, and distractable

Less Common Normal Behaviors*

  • Rubbing body against others
  • Trying to insert tongue in mouth while kissing
  • Touching peer/adult genitals
  • Crude mimicking of movements associated with sexual acts
  • Sexual behaviors that are occasionally, but persistently, disruptive to others
  • Behaviors are transient and moderately responsive to distraction

Uncommon Behaviors in Normal Children**

  • Asking peer/adult to engage in specific sexual act(s)
  • Inserting objects into genitals
  • Explicitly imitating intercourse
  • Touching animal genitals
  • Sexual behaviors that are frequently disruptive to others
  • Behaviors are persistent and resistant to parental distraction

Rarely Normal Behaviors***

  • Any sexual behaviors that involve children who are four or more years apart
  • A variety of sexual behaviors displayed on a daily basis
  • Sexual behavior that results in emotional distress or physical pain
  • Sexual behaviors associated with other physically aggressive behavior
  • Sexual behaviors that involve coercion
  • Behaviors are persistent and child becomes angry if distracted

It's important to note, since this chart only covers up to age 6, that sexual behaviors appear to decrease gradually after age 5, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's happening less. After age 5 is about the time when children begin to understand they should partake in such behaviors in private.

From the report, "In one normative study of 1,114 children aged 2 to 12 years, a greater variety and frequency of sexual behaviors were reported by parents of boys and girls aged 2 to 5 years when compared with parents of children aged 6 to 9 and 10 to 12 years.**** These data do not necessarily suggest that sexual behaviors are more common among young children but may reflect differences in observation patterns by parents and display tendencies by young children. Younger children are less aware of breaches in personal space and how their behavior may be construed as sexual or inappropriate. Reactions from others of embarrassment and shame may be misinterpreted as positive responses, prompting the child to persist in the sexual behavior."

Most situations involving sexual behaviors that are age appropriate and transient do not warrant parental alarm or child protective services intervention. If you're concerned about your child's behaviors, you can always ask your pediatrician to help you sort out whether the behavior is age appropriate or whether the behaviors require further assessment, likely by a mental health professional. If the child's sexual behavior becomes intrusive, hurtful, and/or age-inappropriate, it's very important to seek the assistance of a professional.

For the full report (PDF), click The Evaluation of Sexual Behaviors in Children.

Do you ever worry about the normality of your child's sexual behaviors? Does this report make you feel more equipped to decipher what's normal?

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