Deciphering age-appropriate sexual behaviors of children

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Parents struggle with what is a child's healthy sexual curiosity and experimentation versus concerning behavior. Understanding age-appropriate sexual behavior helps parents talk with their children about sexuality. When parents have good communication about healthy sexuality, children are less likely to be sexually abused.

All children are sexual. While learning about their bodies and sexuality, children may appear to act in ways that are too mature for their age or development. Many factors influence how much children know about sex, particularly having an older sibling or gaining access to explicit material on the internet; never doubt that children know how to Google "sex." Normal childhood sexual behavior usually can be redirected with simple information and setting limits.

It is normal for children to explore their own and each other's body parts by looking and touching. Children may try to look at parents or siblings changing clothes or Google "sex" on your phone. In general, sexual play is less concerning when it's:

• Between children who have an ongoing mutual, playful friendship.

• Between children of similar size, age and development.

• Lighthearted and spontaneous.

• Between children who are able to follow limits set by adults ("Keep your clothes on at day care," for example).

Stopitnow.org is a great resource for this topic and lists age-appropriate behaviors for the four stages of normal childhood sexual behavior.

Preschool age (0 to 5 years)

Common:

• Asking about and knowing differences in private body parts.

• Curiosity about going to the bathroom, pregnancy and birth.

• Showing and looking at private body parts.

• Touching genitals in private or public.

Uncommon:

• Knowledge of specific sexual acts or explicit language.

• Engaging in adult-like sexual contact with other children.

School-age children (6 to 8 years)

Common:

• Questions about physical development, relationships, sexual behavior, menstruation and pregnancy and personal values.

• Experimentation with same-age and same-gender children, often during games like "house" or "doctor."

• Self-stimulation in private.

Uncommon:

• Adult-like sexual interactions or knowledge of specific sexual acts.

• Public (rather than private) self-stimulation.

• Behaving sexually in a public place or through the phone or internet.

Preteen children (9-12 years)

Common:

• Experience hormonal changes and increased external influence from peers, TV and internet, which may increase sexual awareness, feelings and interest.

• Have questions (and need information) about sex, healthy relationships and sexual behaviors.

• Looking for information about sex, particularly online.

• Experimentation with using sexual words and discussing sexual acts, particularly with peers.

• There may be increased experimentation with sexual behaviors and romantic relationships.

• Self-stimulation in private.

Uncommon:

• Regular adult-like sexual behavior.

• Behaving sexually in public.

Adolescence (13-16 years)

Common:

• Teens will have questions about relationships and sex, personal values and consequences of sex.

• Self-stimulation in private.

• Talking about sex with friends.

• Sexual experimentation with peers.

• Voyeuristic behaviors.

• First sexual intercourse will occur for about one-third of teens.

Uncommon:

• Self-stimulation/masturbation in public.

• Sexual interest directed toward much younger children.

Warning signs of when a child's sexual behavior may be more than harmless curiosity include an act that:

• Shows age-inappropriate lack of inhibition.

• Cannot be redirected.

• Causes emotional or physical pain or injury.

• Is physically aggressive or includes coercion or force.

• Simulates adult sexual acts.

• Shows sexualized interest in adults or much younger children.

Problems with a child's sexual behavior may be a sign of abuse. If you are concerned about your child's behavior, talk to their pediatrician. You can also contact CAV for information and resources about age-appropriate behavior.

Williams is the executive director of Community Against Violence, Inc., which offers free confidential support and assistance for adult and child survivors of sexual and domestic violence, dating violence and stalking; community and school violence prevention programs; re-education BIP groups for domestic violence offenders; shelter; and community thrift store. To talk with someone or get information on services available, call CAV's 24-hour crisis line at (575) 758-9888 or visit TaosCAV.org.

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