Sexual behaviours in children

Sexual behaviours in children
Your little one is touching themself or playing doctor . . . How do you know what’s normal vs. what’s not, and how should you react?


It is normal for young children to engage in different types of sexual exploration or play. Preschoolers, toddlers, and babies often touch their genitals, but they do so for different reasons.

Sexual behaviours between the ages of 0 and 3

Babies discover their genitals randomly, while exploring their body. Because babies tend to repeat sensations they find pleasurable, it’s not unusual to witness a baby playing with their genitals.

Children between the ages of 1 and 3 are more aware of their bodies and genital areas. This means they explore their bodies more intentionally, looking for some manner of sexual stimulation. Some children do this in order to relax. For example, they might caress themself after they lie down for a nap before they fall asleep.

Sexual behaviours between the ages of 3 and 5

Children aged 3 to 5 are aware of their bodies and anatomy and are curious to know if other children are like them. Some children will drop their pants to show themself to another child and observe the other. Curiosity is the main reason for these explorations.

Some children don’t just want to get undressed and look at others—they also want to touch or be touched. This behaviour is normal at this age, as children begin to form their first friendships and increasingly seek out interactions with other children their age.

They might also ask questions about the differences between boys and girls and how babies are made. These questions are typical for many children.

Are my child’s sexual behaviours normal?

Since sexual exploration varies from child to child, it isn’t always easy to distinguish normal behaviours from problematic ones. Here are a few guidelines to help you.

  • Sexual explorations are usually spontaneous, and children who take part in them should feel comfortable and not pressured. These sexual explorations must not interfere with your child’s daily activities. For example, if they refuse to play with their cousins in the living room, and prefer to go to their room to masturbate, it’s important to intervene by encouraging them to go play with other children.
  • Out of curiosity, children sometimes engage in nudity with each other to compare themselves, and some will touch each other. To ensure this activity remains exploratory, the children involved must be comfortable with the interaction and not be forced into it by another child.
  • The nature of the activity between the children is also important. More specifically, it should be limited to exploration, such as showing their genitals or looking at each other naked. Generally, it’s also normal for children to touch one another. However, certain behaviours—such as trying to penetrate or kiss another child’s genitals—merit particular attention. At this point, it’s important to figure out where and how your child learned these behaviours, which toddlers shouldn’t know about.
  • We also need to consider the age of the child involved in the sexual exploration. For this to remain an exploration, it’s important for the children to be around the same age, which means they’ll be around the same stage in their sexual development. For example, it is normal to see two 3-year-olds touching their penises. However, a 5-year-old boy touching the penis of a 1-year-old would be more disturbing, since these children would not be at the same stage of psychosexual development.
  • If your child masturbates, make sure they don’t have any sexual injuries (e.g., significant and regular irritation). Such injuries could indicate a high frequency and intensity of masturbation. In this case, it would be better to limit your child’s masturbation and explain to them that they must take care of this part of their anatomy, just as they do with the rest of their body.

How should you react?

If your toddler is exploring their body or engaging in sexual play, try to stay calm. Young children do not yet know what behaviours are appropriate and which are not, and have not yet learned about modesty. However, it is important to let your child know that certain parts of their body are private and should not be touched by adults or older children. When it comes to exploring with other children their age, it’s important to tell your toddler that if they’re uncomfortable, they must tell the other child and move on to a different game.

When your baby or very young child touches their genitals at inappropriate times, simply remove their hand or draw their attention to something else. Even if your child is very young—even if they’re a baby—you can explain to them that they’ve discovered their genitals, but that it’s better to do something else while you’re together.

For a preschooler, it’s best to explain that self-stimulation (masturbation) should be done in private, such as their bedroom or the bathroom. Avoid comments that may lead to feelings of shame and guilt.

Reactions to avoid

  • Don’t make a fuss or laugh at them if they touch themself. Since they’re in the process of discovering their body, such a reaction could affect them. It’s better to tell them that it’s okay to touch themself, but that it should be done in private, because sexuality is an intimate thing.
  • Don’t negatively judge your child or make them feel guilty for touching themself (”You’re not allowed,” ”That’s dirty,” etc.), and don’t threaten them. This attitude can lead your child to repress this side of themself, causing them to develop a sense of shame about sexual pleasure, which can lead to difficulties with sexuality as an adult.
  • Refrain from making inappropriate threats such as: “If you touch it too much, it will fall off,” or “It’s going to get cut off!” These can have significant psychological consequences.
  • Conversely, providing no guidance, or talking too much about a particular sexual behaviour in an effort to provide a liberated education might encourage your child to repeat that behaviour often and cause sexual overstimulation.

Be prepared to answer certain questions about sexuality that children usually ask. You can find good books about the subject at bookstores and libraries. These can help you approach the issue in a fun way, as if you were telling a story. If you have access to a wide range of books, choose the ones you like the most, that don’t make you uncomfortable. (See our suggestions below.)

When should you worry?
The following behaviours are not common in young children and should be given special attention. Some of these may be signs of sexual abuse.
  • Your child touches their genitals so often that they decline to do other activities.
  • They continue to touch their genitals in public even though they have repeatedly been told to stop.
  • They continue to use swear words (or sexually suggestive words) even though they’ve been told to stop several times, have been told why it’s wrong, and have been taught appropriate words to use instead.

Behaviours that are more likely to be signs of sexual abuse

  • They force other children to undress.
  • They fondle other children’s genitals.
  • They know too much about sex for their age. For example, they know about oral sex and sexual positions.
  • They simulate sexual intercourse or other adult sexual behaviours.
  • They use threats, blackmail, or coercion in their “sexual games” with other children.
  • They engage in sexualized behaviours towards adolescents or adults.
  • They put objects into their vagina or rectum, or those of other children.
  • They ask to look at sexually explicit images.

If you are concerned about your child’s sexual behaviours, speak with a doctor. If you fear that your child has been sexually abused, contact the Director of Youth Protection (DYP) or your CLSC.

Things to keep in mind

  • As toddlers being to explore their bodies, it’s normal for them to touch their genitals.
  • Young children are curious about others’ bodies and may want to see or touch the genitals of other children their age.
  • If you’re concerned about your child’s behaviour, consult a doctor, your CLSC, or the Director of Youth Protection (DYP).

 

Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Geneviève Parent, sexologist and psychotherapist
Research and writing: The Naître et grandir Team
Updated: December 2019

 

References

Please note that hyperlinks to other websites are not updated regularly, and some may have changed since publication. It is therefore possible that a link may not be found. If a link is no longer valid, use search engines to find the relevant information.

Books for parents

  • Dolto, Françoise. Tout est langage. Paris, Éditions Gallimard, Folio essais series, 2002, 288 pp.
  • Robert, Jocelyne. Parlez-leur d’amour… et de sexualité. Montreal, Les Éditions de l’Homme, 1999, 192 pp.
  • Rossant, Lyonel and Jacqueline Rossant-Lumbroso. Votre enfant: guide à l’usage des parents. Paris, Éditions Robert Laffont, Bouquins series, 2006, 1515 pp.
  • Rufo, Marcel. Tout ce que vous ne devriez jamais savoir sur la sexualité de vos enfants. Paris, Livre de poche, 2005, 220 pp.
  • Saint-Pierre, Frédérique and Marie-France Viau. Que savoir sur la sexualité de mon enfant? Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2008, 80 pp.

Books for kids

  • Fougère, Isabelle and Coline Citron. L’encyclo de la vie sexuelle 4-6 ans. Paris, Hachette Jeunesse, 2016, 32 pp.
  • Department of Justice. The Secret of the Silver Horse. Ottawa, Department of Justice, Communications and Public Affairs, 1989, 15 pp. (A book that deals with sexual assault)
  • Robert, Jocelyne and Jo-Anne Jacob. Ma sexualité de 0 à 6 ans. Montreal, Les Éditions de l’Homme, 2015, 88 pp. (With a section for parents)
  • Rosenstiehl, Agnès. La naissance. Paris, Autrement Jeunesse, 2008, 42 pp.

Documentary

  • Bissonnette, Sophie. Sexy Inc. Our Children Under Influence. National Film Board of Canada, 2007, 35 minutes 27 seconds. A film about the hypersexualization and eroticization of childhood, also containing a facilitation guide. To purchase the DVD or to view the film online: www.nfb.ca

Websites

  • The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada. www.sexandu.ca/

    La « section pour les parents » n’est plus sur le site alors nous avons mis à jour cette citation en anglais.

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