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What Is Normal Childhood Sexual Development?

— Families Are Talking
Updated on Apr 30, 2014

What Is Normal Childhood Sexual Development?

Children are curious about the world around them. They tend to reach for and touch everything they can get their hands on, ask questions like "Why is the sky blue?," and simply stare at their surroundings to gather information. Sexuality is no exception. When children are young, they are curious about their bodies, other people's bodies, gender roles, and almost everything else related to sexuality. During adolescence, young people may want to know if they are "normal," what it feels like to date, to kiss someone, and what it's like to experiment with sexual behaviors. While many parents are nervous that they might witness their young children playing doctor or find out that their teen kissed a peer, this inquisitiveness is most often a natural part of young people's sexual development, not a cause for concern.

How Can Parents and Caregivers Handle a Sexual Scenario?

Reacting to a sexual scenario-whether it's dealt with directly or ignored-sends a message that can help or hinder a child's sexual development. By viewing these as "teachable moments," opportunities to convey positive messages and values about sexuality, parents and caregivers can lay the foundation for their children to be sexually healthy. This also lets children know that their parents are open to talking with them. It's never too late to talk with children about sexuality. And, even if parents and caregivers handled a past situation in ways that they are not proud of, it's not too late to begin to share positive messages.

What Behaviors Can Parents and Caregivers Expect at Various Stages?

Every child is different. While some children may not exhibit sexual behaviors, many will engage in all or some of the common behaviors below. If, however, children display sexual signs that increase in frequency, aggressiveness, and intensity over a short period of time, or engage in behaviors beyond the scope of what follows, they should be evaluated by a therapist or other expert in the field of childhood sexual development.

Common Behaviors 

From Birth to Age 2, children may:
  • Explore their body parts, including their genitals. Boys this age can have erections, and girls' vaginas can lubricate. Believe it or not, this genital response actually begins while they are in the womb.
  • Begin to develop feelings about touch, their body, male or female identity, and the way they "should" act as a boy or girl. These feelings are often influenced by the child's interactions with family and society.

How Parents and Caregivers Can Foster the Sexual Development of Their Children from Birth to Age 2

  • Allow the baby to touch his/her genitals during diaper changes.
  • Instill a positive body image by sharing positive baby "body" talk.
  • Model behavior and share positive messages about gender and touch when holding, dressing, talking to, and playing with the baby.
Children Ages 3 to 4 may:
  • Become increasingly curious about their bodies. Knowing that touching their genitals feels good, they may begin to masturbate by stimulating themselves with their hand or rocking against a stuffed animal, which may or may not lead to orgasm.
  • Establish that they are a boy or a girl. However, while playing they may pretend to be the other gender.
  • Be inquisitive about body differences and voluntarily play house, doctor, or explore other forms of sexual play with friends or siblings that are close in age and developmental level. If they play alone, they might undress their dolls to see their genitals.
  • Express interest in words associated with bathroom behaviors, show curiosity about how males and females use the toilet, repeat "curse" words that they hear, and start to ask sexuality-related questions like "Where did I come from?"
Children Ages 5 to 8 may:
  • Continue sex play and masturbation.
  • Become very curious about pregnancy and birth.
  • Form strong same-sex friendships. Girls tend to form close intimate bonds with one or two other girls. Boys usually play in larger groups and their play is usually oriented around activities.
  • Show strong interest in stereotypical male and female roles, regardless of parents' approach to childrearing.

How Parents and Caregivers Can Foster the Sexual Development of Their Children Ages 3 to 8:

  • Explain in a calm tone that while touching the genitals can feel good, it is to be done in a private place like their bedroom.
  • When finding a child engaged in sex play with another child, gently ask them what they are doing so that the scenario can be understood from the child's perspective. It is important to remove the adult lens and see the behavior from the child's point of view.This will help parents understand that more often than not, the behavior is not erotically focused but motivated by curiosity.
  • Parents can then explain that one's penis/vulva/buttocks etc. are considered to be private, and that no one should touch their "private parts" except for health reasons or to clean them.
  • Give the child anatomically correct dolls to help them understand that girls and boys have many body parts that are the same and some that are different.
  • Read age-appropriate sexuality books with the child to help lay the foundation for them to grow up sexually healthy.
  • Continue to model appropriate behavior and share positive messages about gender and other aspects of sexuality that arise.
  • Use proper terms to name body parts, including the genitals.
  • Follow up children's questions age-appropriately by asking questions like "What do you think?" This will give parents an idea of what they are really asking and help give an indication of what they are ready to learn.
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