Many parents do not want to think about their children as sexual beings until they become young adults. However, sexual behavior may start as early as infancy. Parents of boys often talk about how their sons will touch themselves when their diapers are being changed. Children are curious. They are not only curious about their own bodies, but also about other people’s bodies. Children’s curiosity may even lead to touching each other’s private parts or “playing doctor.”

Sometimes, however, the sexual behaviors of children are more than a result of harmless curiosity. At times the sexual behavior of children becomes harmful to themselves and to other children. Guidelines exist to help parents determine if the sexual behavior of their children is a problem.

Parents should be concerned when their childen’s sexual acts or behaviors have one or more of the following characteristics:
  • Occur frequently (they happen a lot, not just every once in a while)
  • Take place between children of widely differing ages (such as a 12-year-old who acts out with a 4-year-old) or between children of different abilities
  • Are initiated with strong, upset feelings, such as anger or anxiety
  • Cause harm or potential harm (physical or emotional) to any child
  • Do not respond to typical parenting strategies (such as discipline)
  • Involve coercion, force, or aggression of any kind

Problematic sexual behaviors that are displayed by children are troubling. Such behaviors involve inappropriate or harmful use of sexual body parts, such as the buttocks, breasts, anus, or genitals (including the penis, testicles, vulva, and vagina). The child displaying the sexual behavior as well as any other children who might have been witness to it, or who might have been involved, may be harmed by such behavior.

Different types of sexual behavior
problems include:
  • A child who sexually touches him or herself, causing physical harm or damage (such as, touching one’s own private parts so much that they become red and sore)
  • A child who often attempts to look at other people when they have no clothes on (such as, looking underneath the bathroom stall at other children)
  • Sexual interactions with other children can involve inappropriate touching (such as with younger children), oral-genital contact and intercourse
  • Sexual behaviors that involve force, coercion, or aggression. These are of greatest concern.

While adults who sexually abuse children may have deviant sexual arousal, it is very different for children. The sexual behaviors of children usually take place for other reasons, such as when a child feels anxious or angry, is reacting to a traumatic experience, is overly curious after seeing sexual materials, seeks attention, is trying to imitate others, or is merely trying to calm him or herself.

Problematic sexual behaviors in children are not limited to any particular group of children or gender. Problematic sexual behaviors occur in children across age ranges, socioeconomic (income) levels, cultural groups, living circumstances, and family structures. Some children with problematic sexual behaviors have parents who are married; some have parents who are divorced. Some have abuse histories; some have no history of abuse or other trauma. But they are all children first. They are children who have shown a behavior that is not acceptable and that needs treatment.

Children with problematic sexual behavior often respond well to parental guidance and supervision and to treatment.  With these types of supports, most children do not continue to have problematic sexual behavior into adolescence and adulthood.  

Tips to Remember
1 Sexual behavior of children range from typical to problematic.
2 Be concerned if sexual behavior does not respond to parental intervention.
3 Sexual behavior that includes use of force, coercion, or aggression are highly concerning. Professional support is needed.
4 Boys and girls can have problematic sexual behavior.
5 Treatment can help prevent future problematic sexual behavior.