Birth to Age 2 – learn about love and trust through relationships with their parents and caregivers. – Explore their bodies, including the genitals – Have erections or lubricate vaginally

Birth to Age 2 – learn about love and trust through relationships with their parents and caregivers.
– Explore their bodies, including the genitals
– Have erections or lubricate vaginally
– Experience genital pleasure and/or explore genitals
– Start to notice differences between the bodies of boys and girls, children and adults
– Begin to learn expected behavior
– Focus on developing a sense of trust
– Learn about body through sense of touch
– May be able to make basic distinction between males and females
– No inhibitions about nudity

Adults can facilitate healthy sexual development by:

  • Using correct terms for body parts
  • Modeling “comfortable” touch (e.g., hugs that are not forced upon the child)
  • Talking to child about boundaries as the opportunity arises (e.g., during diapering, bath tell child that genitals are off limits)

Ages 2 to 5 – become very curious about their bodies and the differences between girls and boys
– Play house, doctor or other body exploration activities
– Learn they are female or male and learn female and male roles by observing others
– Enjoy learning about and talking about body parts and functions
– Find adult bathroom activities very interesting
– Learn words related to sex and attempt to use them in conversations
– Mimic adult sexual behavior
– Develop language to describe genitalia
– May know basics of human reproduction (e.g., babies grow inside mother’s tummy) and ask questions about pregnancy and birth
– Often masturbate
– Often engage in consensual genital exploration with same age peers
– May show curiosity about adult genitalia (e.g., may try to see Mommy nude)
– No inhibitions about nudity

Adults can facilitate healthy sexual development by:

  • Encouraging child to use correct terminology to describe genitalia
  • Teaching child the difference between comfortable/appropriate touch and uncomfortable/unacceptable touch
  • Modeling comfortable touch by not forcing child to have physical contact (e.g., no forced hugs or kisses, no wrestling if child protests)
  • Modeling the importance of privacy during bathing and toileting
  • Giving child permission to be private about his/her own nudity
  • Using everyday opportunities to teach child fundamentals of sexuality (e.g., if child asks questions about sex, give simple and direct answers)
  • Teaching child that touching oneself feels good, is OK, and can be done in private
  • Teaching child to respect other people’s boundaries and privacy

Ages 5 to 8 – develop strong friendships with children of the same sex
– React to stories they hear in the media (AIDS, abuse, violence)
– Increase their ideas about female and male roles
– Have a basic sexual orientation and identity
– Desire to be like their peers
– Engage in name-calling and teasing
– Continue body exploration activities
– Begin and/or continue to masturbate
– Gender identity solidifies and stabilizes (understand physical, behavioral, and
– Emotional distinctions between males and females,
– Should have basic understanding of puberty (some children, especially girls, will show early signs of puberty)
– Should have basic understanding of human reproduction
– May understand differences in sexual orientation
– Will develop more stable friendships
– May engage in consensual genital exploration with same age (and often, same sex) peers
– Will begin to be modest about nudity

Adults can facilitate healthy sexual development by:

  • Respecting child’s need for privacy
  • Being clear with child about respect for people’s boundaries and need for privacy
  • Talking with child about bodily responses, especially those that are precursors to sexual response (e.g., “it feels good to touch one’s genitals), and about what is and is not appropriate during peer interaction
  • Modeling healthy, intimate adult relationships characterized by effective communication
  • Teaching child about male and female puberty (by 7-8 years old)
  • Using everyday opportunities to teach child about sexuality, even the mechanics of reproduction (children should know the “birds and the bees” by no later than 9 years old—It’s important to know that research shows that children whose parents talk with them about sexuality are less likely to become sexually active at an early age)

Ages 9 to 12 – onset of puberty
– Grow to be more modest and want privacy
– Value same sex friendships
– Experience increased sexual feelings and fantasies
– Develop romantic feelings toward the same sex and/or the opposite sex
– Explore sexual activities with peers
– May masturbate to orgasm
– Face decisions about sex

Adults can facilitate healthy sexual development by:
Hormones are flying right now! Your child is well into adolescence, and this includes having sexual thoughts and feelings. They likely have many peers who are stepping into the very adult world of sex, so now it is very important to continue reinforcing the lessons you have taught them in the past. You may be giving the same information and answering the same questions numerous times, but know that the information is being processed differently each time, depending on what stage of development your child is in. Hormones and personal experiences also play a role in how your child will accept and process this

Ages 13 to 18 – continue and complete the changes of puberty
– Value independence
– Experience increased sexual feelings and want physical closeness with a partner
– Continue to face decisions about sex
– Chose romantic relationships over close friendships
– May encounter violence in relationships

Adults can facilitate healthy sexual development by:
The mantra to remember during this time is reinforce, reinforce, reinforce! Be open to questions and concerns, and answer them as fully and nonjudgmentally as possible. Revisit the safer sex, birth control and condom negotiation subjects. Continue instilling the importance of behaving appropriately online and via cell phones (nude photos could mean arrest for child pornography, no dream college, etc.).

Puts mouth on sex parts
Asks to engage in sex acts
Puts objects in rectum or vagina
Imitates intercourse
Masturbates with objects
Undresses other people
Touches other’s sex parts after being told not to
Asks to watch sexually explicit television
Touches adults’ sex parts
Makes sexual sounds

Sexual Play vs. Problematic Sexual Behavior

Professionals in the field have developed a continuum of sexual behaviors that range from common sexual play to problematic sexual behavior. These are described below.
Sexual play• is exploratory and spontaneous;

  • Occurs intermittently and by mutual agreement;
  • Occurs with children of similar age, size, or developmental level, such as siblings, cousins, or peers
  • Is not associated with high levels of fear, anger, or anxiety;
  • Decreases when told by caregivers to stop; and
  • Can be controlled by increased supervision.

Problematic sexual behavior
Is a frequent, repeated behavior, such as compulsive masturbation;
Example: A six-year-old repeatedly masturbates at school or in other public places.

Occurs between children who do not know each other well;
Example: An eight-year-old girl shows her private parts to a new child during an after school program.

Occurs with high frequency and interferes with normal childhood activities;
Example: A seven-year-old girl has been removed from the soccer team because she continues to touch other children’s private parts.

Is between children of different ages, size, and development level;
Example: An eleven-year-old boy is “playing doctor” with a three-year-old girl.

Is aggressive, forced, or coerced;
Example: A ten-year-old threatens his six-year-old cousin and makes him touch his penis.

Does not decrease after the child is told to stop the behavior;
Example: A nine-year-old child continues to engage other children in mutual touching after being told the behavior is not allowed and having consequences, such as being grounded.

Causes harm to the child or others.
Example: A child causes physical injury, such as bruising, redness, or abrasions on themselves or another child, or causes another child to be highly upset or fearful.

Children With Sexual Behavior Problems

Children with sexual behavior problems (SBPs) are children 12 years and under who demonstrate developmentally inappropriate or aggressive sexual behavior. This definition includes self-focused sexual behavior, such as frequent public masturbation, and intrusive or aggressive sexual behavior towards others that may include coercion or force. Although the term “sexual” is used, the children’s intentions and motivations for these behaviors may be unrelated to sexual gratification. Some children who have been sexually abused have inappropriate sexual behaviors and others have aggressive or highly problematic sexual behavior. However, it should be noted that the majority of children who have been sexually abused do not have subsequent inappropriate or aggressive sexual behaviors. Although only a small number of children develop problematic sexual behavior, professionals and parents may have concerns about (1) whether the behavior is problematic, (2) whether a child should be referred for mental health services, and (3) when an incident should be reported to the proper authorities.
Suggestions for professionals and parents are listed below:

  • Do not overreact as most sexual behaviors in children are within the typical or expected range.
  • Inappropriate or problematic sexual behavior in children is not a clear indicator that a child has been sexually abused.
  • Most children will stop the behavior if they are told the rules, mildly restricted, well supervised, and praised for appropriate behavior.
  • If the sexual behavior is problematic as defined above, referral for mental health services is recommended.
  • It is important to remember that children with problematic sexual behavior are significantly different from adolescent and adult sex offenders.
  • A report to Child Protective Services (CPS) and/or law enforcement may be required by law for certain behaviors such as aggressive or forced sexual behavior.

Information adapted from:

  • National Center on Sexual Behavior of Youth,
  • Darkness to Light
  • The Sex Ed Handbook by Dr. Berman
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