Age appropriate sexual behaviour
We all know that children pass through different stages of development as they grow, and that their awareness and curiosity about sexual matters change as they pass from infancy into childhood and then through puberty to adolescence. Each child is an individual and will develop in his or her own way. However, there is a generally accepted range of behaviours linked to a child’s age and developmental stage. Sometimes these will involve some exploration with other children of a similar age. It can be difficult to tell the difference between age appropriate sexual exploration and warning signs of harmful behaviour. Occasionally we may need to explain to children why we would prefer them not to continue with a particular behaviour.
This is a chance to talk with them about keeping themselves and others safe and to let them know that you are someone who will listen. Disabled children may develop at different rates, depending on the nature of their disability, and they can be more vulnerable to abuse. Children with learning disabilities, for example, may behave sexually in ways that are out of step with their age. Particular care may be needed in educating such children to understand their sexual development and to ensure that they can communicate effectively about any worries they have.
It is important to recognise that while people from different backgrounds have different expectations about what is acceptable behaviour in children, sexual abuse happens across all races and cultures. Remember that each child develops at his or her own pace and not every child will show the behaviours described below. If you have any worries or questions about a child you know, talk to someone about it.
Pre-school children (0-5) years commonly:
- Use childish ‘sexual’ language to talk about body parts
- Ask how babies are made and where they come from
- Touch or rub their own genitals
- Show and look at private parts
- Discuss sexual acts or use sexually explicit language
- Have physical sexual contact with other children
- Show adult-like sexual behaviour or knowledge
School-age children (6-12 years) commonly:
- Ask questions about menstruation, pregnancy and other sexual behaviour
- Experiment with other children, often during games, kissing, touching, showing and role playing e.g. mums and dads or doctors and nurses
- Masturbate in private
- Masturbate in public
- Show adult like sexual behaviour or knowledge
- Ask questions about relationships and sexual behaviour
- Use sexual language and talk between themselves about sexual acts
- Masturbate in private
- Experiment sexually with adolescents of similar age
NB. About one-third of adolescents have sexual intercourse before the age of 16.
- Masturbate in public
- Have sexual contact with much younger children or adults
Warning signs of sexually harmful behaviour
One of the hardest things for parents to discover is that their child may have sexually harmed or abused another child. In this situation, denial, shock and anger are normal reactions. If it is not responded to quickly and sensitively, the effect on the whole family can be devastating. For this reason it is vital to contact someone for advice about what to do as soon as you suspect that something is wrong. The positive message is that early help for the child or young person and their family can make a real difference. Evidence suggests that the earlier children can get help, the more chance there is of preventing them moving on to more serious behaviour. It is important to be alert to the early warning signs that something is going wrong. If you are in this situation, remember that you are not alone. Many other parents have been through similar experiences, and, as a result, the child and family found the help they needed are were able to rebuild their lives. The first step is to decide that it would be helpful to talk it over with someone else.
Do you know a child or adolescent who:
- Seeks out the company of younger children and spends an unusual amount of time in their company?
- Takes younger children to ‘secret’ places or hideaways or plays ‘special’ games with them (e.g. doctor and patient, removing clothing etc.) especially games unusual to their age?
- Insists on hugging or kissing a child when the child does not want to?
- Tells you they do not want to be alone with a child or becomes anxious when a particular child comes to visit?
- Frequently uses aggressive or sexual language about adults or children?
- Shows sexual material to younger children?
- Makes sexually abusive telephone calls?
- Shares alcohol or drugs with younger children or teens?
- Views child pornography on the internet or elsewhere?
- Exposes his or her genitals to younger children?
- Forces sex on another adolescent or child?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should talk to the child or young person and seek advice.
What you can do if you see warning signs
If you are concerned about the sexualized behaviours in a parent, cousin, sibling, friend, or neighbor, you should consider contacting the police or children’s services in your area, they can take action if appropriate. If you choose not to do that, care enough to talk to the person whose behaviour is worrying you.
Make sure everyone knows that it’s OK to talk with you about what may have already happened – that you love them and will help them. Click the links for additional resources or for advice on developing your Family Safety Plan,
Want to know more?
If you want to know more about sexual abuse, abusers and protecting children – watch our learning programme here.
P.S. As a parent, it’s quite natural to worry over the safety of your child. But at the same time, it’s crucial to ensure that your child’s safety is guaranteed. Click here if you want a guaranteed way to protect your children from predators.