If your cases involve clients sharing concerns regarding sexualized behavior in their children, the following may be helpful in educating yourself, and provide good information to your clients.
Though it may be difficult to acknowledge, we are all sexual beings and sexual development begins at birth. Sexual development includes curiosity, exploration, questions, and feelings. It is important for parents and others involved in children’s lives to be able to evaluate if a child’s behavior is developmentally appropriate or a red flag. The responses of adults around the child will have a lasting impact on the child’s ongoing sexual development and approach to future relationships.
When you think about young children, we recognize they learn about their environment through touch and hands-on experiences. The same is true in their learning about their own bodies. It is not uncommon to see an infant or toddler touching their own genitals during a diaper change. We label this “sexualized behavior” because it involves a body part we consider private, though from a developmental standpoint, the child is exploring and experiencing pleasurable sensations upon touching themselves. The behavior is similar to cuddling with a soft blanket and carries no sexual implication. It is of a curious and innocent nature, and is developmentally appropriate. As toddlers begin to differentiate between boys and girls, it is not uncommon for them to show their genitals to peers or look at others’ genitals. Another common behavior at this age is running around naked both in private and in public. There is an age appropriate lack of modesty and awareness of personal space. As children grow, their understanding of what is sexual also grows. We need to remember not to sexualize or place unnecessary sexual meaning on behaviors we observe in children.
As children enter preschool and school-age years, their awareness of themselves and others is further developed and should also apply to sexualized behaviors. Children of this age begin to be able to recognize social norms and differentiate between public and private. During preschool years, children retain the lack of modesty and lack of awareness of personal space. They tend to talk about their body parts and bodily functions, show their private parts to familiar people, and are curious when family members are changing, bathing, and toileting.
While adults may be more comfortable with a child’s exploration of themselves, sexualized behavior and play involving others is often seen as more problematic. We need to remember we learn by interaction with the world, and those “others” children engage with are part of that world. Sexual play typically occurs between children who have an ongoing play and/or school friendship, are of similar age, size, and development, and is lighthearted and spontaneous. There is no accompanying anger, fear, or anxiety. Pretend play such as “doctor” is common among preschool and early school age is common. They also imitate flirtatious or romantic behaviors, though lack full understanding of what they are imitating. Behaviors such as playfully exposing themselves or touching/exposing peers is also common (i.e., mooning and “pantsing” peers) and often found humorous by children and their peers. As children advance to later school age, their sexualized play also matures to include games of a sexual nature such as “truth or dare.”
Sexualized behaviors become a problem when the child cannot be redirected to engage in alternative age-appropriate play, when emotional or physical pain is caused to themselves or others, when physical aggression, coercion, or force are associated with the sexual behavior, or when children are simulating adult sexual acts. Differences in interest level among children to explore, and differences on the passive-assertive-aggressive scale, can also result in a pushier child manipulating a passive child into sex play that passive child does not want to do. While not necessarily indicative of abuse, intervention is needed immediately to stop this. Sexually explicit, planned, or aggressive sexual acts are not a typical part of sexual development. Other rare behaviors include putting objects in the vagina or rectum, putting one’s mouth on sexual parts, or pretending toys are having sex. These behaviors require immediate attention and should be further evaluated by a professional. Family stress and dysfunction often cause or exacerbate externalizing behavior and sexual behavior problems in children, though is not necessarily indicative of abuse.
Parental reaction to sexualized behavior provides your child’s first lessons in sexuality. This includes the words you use, your tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. First and foremost, stay calm. Make sure your child is unharmed and appropriately supervised. Use parental discovery of sexual play as teachable moments. Provide guidance to children regarding other ways to engage to engage with peers and do not shame sexual behaviors. Show curiosity by listening to your child’s viewpoints and know their intentions. Beginning in toddlerhood, teach your child correct body part terminology; label “safe” and “unsafe” touch, and teach and model respect for your body. Be honest and matter of fact in your responses to questions about their body and development, using developmentally appropriate language and detail. You also want to teach rules and expectations that are situation specific (“In school we keep our shirts on”) and more broadly teach about personal space and public versus private activities. As children mature to later school age, you should educate them further about personal space, privacy, dating, and use of technology as it relates to sexuality and the development of intimate relationships. Keep in mind, parental overreaction to developmentally appropriate sexual behavior may escalate these behaviors. Ultimately you want to empower your child with knowledge about their body, their rights, and safe behaviors.