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Ages and stages-age appropriate sexual behaviour

Children may behave in sexual ways because they have been sexually abused, have been over exposed to sexualised material, have witnessed sexual behaviours, or have experienced other emotional difficulties.

Children are often confused by what they have experienced and are unsure about what is appropriate behaviour. However, if you are concerned about a child’s behaviour do not ignore it. Do not assume that a child will grow out of it, or that the behaviour will correct itself. Stay calm and set a boundary around the concerning behaviour and seek support and help about these issues from a specialist agency. Until you have sought advice from a specialist agency, make sure that your child or teenager is not left unsupervised with other children.

Remember that supporters need support too so ask your local specialist agencies for services that they can offer you.

Sexual play and behaviour is part of normal development and must be understood in the child’s social, cultural and familial context.

Children’s physical, social, cognitive and emotional development progresses at different rates. The developmental stage they have reached plays a big part in dictating their sexual play and behaviour.

Typical or expected sexual play or behaviour

  • Occurs between children who are of similar age, size, social and emotional development
  • Is light hearted and spontaneous
  • When adults set limits on the behaviour the child is able to follow them

Children’s sexual behaviour and play becomes a concern if:

  • It hurts, frightens or upsets one, or both of the children
  • One child forces, threatens, uses bribery or coercion to get the other child to participate
  • One child asks the other child to keep the behaviour a secret
  • The child does not respond to correction
  • When a child is pre occupied with this behaviour or play at the expense of other activities
  • When it is part of a behaviour which suggests the child does not understand boundaries

0-4 years

Common

  • Exploring their own genitals and wanting to touch the genitals of others
  • Playing games such as doctor/nurse or “you show me yours I’ll show you mine”
  • Being curious about or wanting to touch adults’ breasts or genitals
  • Liking being nude
  • Questions or knowledge around hygiene or toileting

Uncommon

  • Simulating explicit foreplay or sexual behaviour with other children or in doll play
  • Persistently masturbating or touching the genitals of other children
  • Sexual behaviour between children including penetration with objects or oral sex
  • One child forcing another to behave in sexual activity

5-8 years

Common

  • Masturbating or self-soothing touching
  • Increasing curiosity in adults sexuality for example pregnancy and gender differences
  • Experimenting with children of the same age often during games or role playing
  • Becoming more private or guarded about their bodies e.g. locking the bathroom door or covering themselves with a towel

Uncommon

  • Persistent masturbation
  • Masturbating in public
  • Engaging in sexual behaviour with significantly younger children
  • Simulating sexual acts which are inappropriately sophisticated
  • Sex is a persistent theme in play, talk, art etc.

9-12 years

Common

  • Using sexual language
  • Having boyfriends or girlfriends
  • Kissing and petting
  • Exhibitionism or flashing between similar aged children
  • Becoming increasingly conscious of their bodies and requiring increased privacy

Uncommon

  • Persistent masturbation particularly in front of others
  • Sexual activity such as oral sex or intercourse
  • Sexually transmitted diseases

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