Caregiver’s Responses to Sexual Play

Child development books and other educational materials for parents rarely include any information about sexual development. Those books also hardly ever explain the difference between typical/normal sexual behavior and sexual behavior problems. Many parents are unsure how to know when a certain sexual behavior—such as when a child touches another child’s private parts—might be “playing doctor” or might signify a more serious issue. This section will provide information about typical sexual development and how it is different from sexual behavior problems.

Children’s sexual awareness starts in infancy and continues to strengthen throughout preschool and school-age years. All aspects of children’s development—including cognitive, language, motor, social, emotional, and sexual development—are linked to each other. The table below gives examples of young children’s general development and how they learn throughout the preschool years. The relationship between children’s general development and their sexual behavior is provided in the second column. For example, young children seek pleasure and avoid discomfort or pain, so if they are uncomfortable in their clothes, they will take them off, not thinking about being nude in front of others. Preschool-age children have little sense of modesty. 

Knowing about children’s behavior and how it changes as they grow can help caregivers determine if a child’s sexual behavior is typical or something to be concerned about.

The following sections provide more details about the development of sexual knowledge and behavior in children. The “What is Problematic Sexual Behavior” section provides information on the differences between typical sexual behavior and problematic sexual behavior in more detail.

The following links lead to downloadable handouts from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network about sexual development and behavior in children.

NCTSN Sexual Development and Behavior in Children

NCTSN Sexual Development and Behavior in Children (Spanish)

Preschool Children’s Development and Behavior
Typical Cognitive, Language, and Social Development in Preschool ChildrenTypical Sexual Development and Behavior
Young children seek pleasure. They do not see themselves from other people’s viewpoints. They are not self-conscious.They often lack modesty and want to be comfortable. They will undress and run around nude in front of others. They may appear to not care about how other people feel because they don’t fully understand the impact of their behavior on others.
They are curious about the world, about how things work, and about how things are similar and different from each other.They are curious about physical differences between boys and girls and between children and adults. This curiosity includes wanting to see how boys’ and girls’ body parts are different.
They learn through their senses,especially by using sight and touch.They learn through their senses, especially by using sight and touch.
They have a rapidly growing vocabulary.They use words related to urination (“pee-pee”) and defecation (“poo-poo”) when labeling their private parts. These words can be exciting to children who will use the words repeatedly, particularly with other kids. Young children will use the technical labels (such as vagina, vulva, penis, anus), if taught these terms.
They learn about behaviors by watching the people around them and imitating them.They imitate behaviors of other children and adults, and play “doctor,” “house,”or “mommy and daddy” with other children.
Children want to avoid being punished by their parents. They try to avoid discomfort, including getting in trouble.They want approval, praise, and rewards from their parents.Whether or how often a child repeats sexual behavior is often related to how caregivers respond to the child’s initial sexual behavior.
Preschool children have limited ability to plan and control their behavior. They have a poor understanding of the long-term consequences of their behavior.Children’s typical sexual behavior (such as curiously looking at another child) is unplanned. The behavior is impulsive, without much thought.
Children often play make-believe. They often pretend to be something or someone else.They may play or dress up as people of the opposite sex.
Sexual Development in Early Childhood: Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers
AGES 0 - 6
Sexual Knowledge

Children as young as 3 years of age can identify their own gender (girl or boy), and then, soon after, can identify the gender of others. At first, children judge the differences between the sexes on observable features found in the culture (such as hair length), although by age 3 or 4 years, many children are aware of differences in the bodies of boys and girls.

Young children often have a limited understanding of pregnancy and birth. By age 6, however, they may know that babies grow in their mother’s womb and they may know the differences between birth by caesarean section or by vaginal delivery. What children know about adults’ sexual behavior and intimacy is influenced by what the children have seen and heard. Preschool children mostly know about such things as kissing and cuddling. About one in five 6-year-olds knows something about more explicit sexual behaviors.

Sexual Behavior

Preschool children are curious in general and tend to actively learn about the world through listening, looking, touching, and imitating. Preschool children express their general curiosity about the world with questions. They also imitate behavior they have seen and they explore their own bodies and others’. Children ages 2 to 5 years old tend to look at others’ bodies and may be especially curious if those people are nude. Children that age do not tend to respect physical boundaries, and may stand too close to other people. They often touch their own sexual body parts, even in public. Young children may touch adult women’s breasts, particularly their mothers’. Dressing up and pretending to be the opposite sex (such as a boy wearing his sister’s dress) is also not unusual throughout this developmental period.

Sexual play (showing one’s own sexual body parts and looking at or briefly touching other children’s body parts) is not unusual for preschool-age children. Sexual play is discussed in more detail below in the school-age development section. Culture and social context influence how often these typical behaviors occur.

Children as young as 7 months may touch and play with their own private parts. Infants and young children’s self-touch behavior appears largely related to curiosity and soothing feeling. From infancy on, children begin to explore the world. They learn about things that feel good and things that don’t. Various parts of the human body have a high concentration of nerve endings that make those areas very sensitive to touch. For example, the fingertips, mouth, anus, and genital areas are highly sensitive. Children discover the sensations in these areas during their normal exploratory behavior. Think of self-touch of private parts as a similar activity to when your child sucks her thumb or snuggles with a soft blanket. Even as infants, children are capable of sexual arousal; newborn baby boys can have penile erections. It’s an automatic bodily response, just like cutting a fresh onion can make your eyes water (even though you are not sad). These behaviors are very different from adult sexuality and self-stimulatory behavior. With young children, bodily responses don’t involve sexual fantasy; they are just something that feels soothing or good.

Sexually explicit, planned, or aggressive sexual acts are not a typical part of sexual development. Other rare sexual behaviors include putting objects in the vagina or rectum, putting one’s mouth on sexual parts, or pretending toys are having sex.

Sexual Development in School-Age Children
AGES 7 - 12

Children usually begin puberty during this age period. Puberty is a time in children’s lives in which their bodies change in many ways, allowing them to be capable of reproducing (of having children). Puberty is a time that brings many changes in children’s bodies, minds, emotions, and relationships with others. It is an important time of life, honored in many cultures through coming-of-age rituals during adolescence. It is also often a difficult time for youths as well as their caregivers.

Puberty usually begins for children around age 10. Some girls may begin to experience changes in their bodies as early as age 7 or 8. For girls, early stages of puberty start with a growth spurt in height, followed by a growth spurt in weight. Boys’ growth spurts often take place later than girls’. A boy’s puberty begins when his testicals and scrotum begin to grow, his vocal cords get bigger, and his voice deepens. The specific age that a child enters puberty varies, depending on such things as nutrition, family genes, and race. The progression with which a child moves through the stages varies, as well. Such differences in the way children move into and through puberty can impact the social adjustment and behavior of young people. For example, a boy who looks younger than his classmates and has a higher-pitched voice may feel awkward about the fact that he is not like his friends.

Sexual Knowledge

Children’s knowledge of pregnancy, birth, and adult sexual activity increases during their elementary-school years. By age 10, most children can have a basic and fairly realistic understanding of puberty, how “babies are made,” pregnancy, and childbirth. The accuracy of their sexual knowledge, however, depends in large part on the children’s exposure to correct information and educational material. Since parents often find communicating with their children about bodily changes and sexual matters uncomfortable, children frequently turn to other sources of information. They may learn inaccurate sexual information and troublesome values from other youth and from movies, magazines, song lyrics, the Internet, and television.

Sexual Behavior

By age 7 and 8, children begin to understand the rules of society and apply those rules to a variety of situations. Children this age start to understand that most sexual behaviors are not allowed. Children often become modest during these years, too. Girls, especially, become shy about undressing in front of others. They also become more private about their personal grooming activities (such as bathing). School-age children’s sexual behaviors become more shaped by their friends and acquaintances than they were at younger ages. They tend to be hesitant to display any sorts of sexual behaviors when anyone else can see them. Children’s sexual behaviors continue to occur throughout this school-age period, but these behaviors are often hidden from view of others. Caregivers may not even know that such sexual behaviors are taking place.

School-age children are especially interested in the media and are likely to seek out television shows, Internetsites, movies, and pictures in publications that include nudity. Self-touch behaviors occur with increasing frequency in boys during this developmental period. Interest in the opposite sex increases as children approach their teens, and interactive behaviors are initiated with the playful teasing of others. A small but significant number (about 7 to 10 percent) of children are involved in more explicit sexual activity, including sexual intercourse, by the age of 13.

Sexual Play Among Children

In other words, normal child development involves some degree of behavior focused on sexual body parts and curiosity about sexual behavior. Sex play occurs between children of similar ages and abilities, who know and play with each other regularly, rather than between strangers. Since most of the time, boys typically play with boys and girls play with girls, sexual play often occurs between children of the same gender, and it may include siblings.

Researchers have learned a lot about childhood sex play through asking young adults about their own childhood experiences. Some things they learned are that sex play among children:

  • occurs between children who know and play with each other already, including siblings and children of the same sex;
  • is common (many of the adults reported at least one childhood experience);
  • may not be discovered by parents;
  • is seen as positive or neutral, if the behavior is true sex play (if it involves children of similar ages, and no force or aggression is used) and not between late school-age or adolescent siblings; and
  • is not related to the children’s sexual orientation in adolescence or adulthood  

Children who participate in typical childhood sexual play are basically being curious. They don’t obsess about sexual activity, or practice more advanced sexual behaviors, such as intercourse or oral sex. Intrusive, planned, forced, or aggressive sexual acts are not part of typical or normal sex play of children, but are, instead, problem behaviors.

In the first example of families provided in the introduction of this website, the two sons of the Cornelison family were demonstrating sex play. The children’s behavior was between two brothers of about the same age. They were not upset or angry. Instead, they were just curious. The behavior was not planned and happened when they were changing clothes. Neither child was pressured to do the behavior, although both were somewhat embarrassed to have been discovered. On the other hand, the sexual behavior of Ryan McFarland in the second example is of more concern due to the four-year age difference between him and his neighbor. The sexual behavior of Jerry Kastner in the last example is particularly concerning as he and his classmates used force with a younger student.

Caregiver's Responses to Sexual Play

In the first example described on Mr. and Mrs. Cornelison’s two sons were involved in sex play. After discovering the situation, the Cornelisons asked what they should do, or if they should ignore the behavior because it was just “normal curiosity.” Rather than ignoring these behaviors, the best response a caregiver can have is to use the discovery of the sex play as “a teachable moment.” The situation can serve as a lesson. When children are involved in sex play, they are primarily being curious. These children benefit from having an adult explain information and the rules about relationships and intimacy to them.

Parents can respond to typical “sex play” or sexual behavior by calmly providing education in the area that appears most relevant to the situation. Responses can include

  • education about accurate names and functions of all body parts;
  • information about social rules of behavior and privacy;
  • information about how to respect their own bodies and those of others;
  • information about friendships and intimate relationships; and
  • sex education that is appropriate for the child’s age and developmental level.

Children will often respond well to accurate information, to the opportunity to have their questions answered, to good supervision, and to reminders of social rules. Books are often useful in this educational process. Suggestions are found in the resource section of the website.

“I was sexually abused as a child so I’ve always been very watchful and sensitive to possible abuse of my own children. Around Halloween, my 4-year-old daughter was found naked with her best friend and they were giggling and pointing to each other’s bottoms. They had been changing into their costumes to play. After talking with her friend’s mother and the girls, I realize now that they were just being kids and curious. I, and the mother of my daughter’s friend, both talked one-on-one with our daughters about private parts and privacy rules. The kids seemed to understand and now they wear leotards when they want to play dress up and change a lot.”

—Parent of a 4-year-old girl

Cultural Impact on Sexual Development

Family and community values and beliefs are the foundation of the culture within which children are raised. A child’s knowledge of sex and the child’s sexual behavior are thus shaped by the values and beliefs held by the child’s own family and community. A variety of cultural attitudes shape what children understand and respond to. Children’s cultural environments affect how they understand body changes, public and private sexual behavior, pregnancy, birth, intimacy, and relationships.

Three examples of cultural differences include the following:

  • Communities may follow social or cultural customs/ practices when teaching their children about sex education and relationships. For example, discussions on sexual behavior with children may be considered appropriate for some individuals to have (such as, when grandmothers teach granddaughters) but taboo for others (such as, when uncles talk with their nieces).
  • Some cultures have specific activities, rituals, or stories involved in the teaching of their youths and in helping with their transition into adulthood.
  • Social environments in which nudity is acceptable and physical privacy is not reinforced are related to higher frequencies of typical (nonintrusive) sexual behaviors in the children than are social environments that reinforce modesty and privacy.
Impact of Media on Sexual Development and Sexual Behavior Problems

Children obtain sexual knowledge through many different sources. Both obvious and subtle messages about sexual behavior are provided through family, friends, neighbors, and the community. Messages about sexuality are also provided through a variety of media sources such as television, movies, music videos, music lyrics, video games, magazines, the Internet, and cell-phone communication. Unfortunately, explicit sexual activities are found during “family time” television shows and on cartoon/children’s channels, as well.

Exposure to explicit sexual acts through different media sources can have a big impact on a child’s behavior. In the second example provided at the beginning of the site, Mr. McFarland’s son, Ryan, had engaged in humping behavior with his younger neighbor. Mr. McFarland wondered how Ryan could have learned such behavior. One possible answer was that Ryan had observed sexual acts in movies or on television, was curious about these behaviors, and then had attempted to act them out with his friend. Nowadays, caregivers have to be extra careful about monitoring what their children are exposed to through multiple media. Children have many opportunities to observe different multimedia sources outside of the home. Parents will find it helpful to develop a strong, supportive network of friends who share their values and who can help supervise the children. Caregivers can benefit from educating themselves about the rating systems of games, movies, and shows as well as how to use parental controls available through cable, satellite dish networks, and the Internet.

It is not entirely clear how children sort out the often conflicting messages they receive about sex, affection, and love relationships. Attentive parents who provide close supervision and good communication can help to provide children with the skills to make healthy decisions about their behavior and relationship choices. Even television programs can have a positive impact on youths’ sexual knowledge and behavior, particularly when those programs demonstrate actual outcomes (like pregnancies) to sexual behavior and when parents talk with their children about the content of the programs.

Children with Developmental Delays, Disabilities, and Medical Conditions

Both developmental disabilities and medical conditions can impact children’s sexual development. For example, children with Down syndrome may start puberty at an early age. Children with Prader-Willi syndrome may start puberty at a later-than-average age. Spinal-cord injuries can cause other types of changes in sexual development. Professionals and family members often are unsure how to understand, accept, and respond to sexual development in individuals with disabilities. As with all children, however, sexual behaviors begin at or around birth, and when children hit puberty, sexual feelings typically strengthen. At that point, many adolescents with developmental disabilities may wish to date or otherwise be in intimate relationships with other youths. Youths with developmental disabilities are less likely to have been provided developmentally appropriate sexual education, due in part to the uncertainty of the adults who are caring for them. Caregivers are encouraged to educate themselves about these issues and to learn how to communicate the information to their youths. Sources of additional information in this area are provided in the resource section of this website.

Tips to Remember
1 Sexual development starts in infancy and continues throughout childhood.
2 Most children are curious about the world including bodies and differences in bodies.
3 Sex Play occurs among same-age children.
4 Sexual knowledge and behavior are influenced by culture, and the media.
5 Children with developmental disabilities and medical conditions also develop sexually and benefit from knowledge, such as through sex education.