Understanding Sexual Behavior in Children (Part 1: Healthy Behavior)

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Before tackling the topic of unhealthy sexual behaviors in children (e.g. Is my child masturbating too much? Is that appropriate play or talk for their age?), it’s important to know what normal sexual development looks like. Having this baseline will alert you to when something is wrong or if your child is simply reaching developmental milestones.

Here is a list of healthy sexual behaviors, according to Healthy Touch for Children and Youth Training.

Infancy (0-2 years old)

  • Learn through relationships with caregivers
  • Develop a sense of trust through touch
  • Explore bodies through touch
  • Explore their own genitals
  • Have no inhibitions about nudity

Toddler and Preschool (2-5 years old)

  • Show interest in human reproduction
  • Learn the difference between males and females
  • Touch themselves to self-soothe or appear to be masturbating in view of others
  • Engage in consensual genital exploration with same age peers
  • Show curiosity about adult bodies
  • Have no inhibitions about nudity

Middle Childhood (5-8 years old)

  • Learns the basics about human reproduction
  • May self-stimulate in private
  • May engage in consensual genital exploration with same age and often same sex peers
  • Will become modest about their own nudity
  • May seek out naked bodies, in person or on the internet
  • Will pretend non-sexual “dating behavior” with same age peers

Pre-Adolescence and Teens (9-13 years)

  • Has increasing sexual awareness
  • Ask questions about sex and sexual relationships
  • Has increasing experimentation and romantic relationships with other adolescents, sometimes of the same gender
  • Seek out sexual content in television, movies and the internet

Our relationship with our children is so important. Knowing what these milestones are allows you to have an open, honest, and age-appropriate conversation with your child about sex and their bodies. These conversations are preventative and, along with other tools, can help protect our children from child sexual abuse

If you are interested in organizing training on this topic or others related to child sexual abuse prevention, please contact me at [email protected].

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Tracy owns Safe Spaces, a consulting and training firm that focuses on building resilient families, communities and organizations (www.sfspcs.com). She is also an Authorized Facilitator and Certified Instructor with Darkness to Light, www.d2l.org, a child sexual abuse prevention organization. Tracy has taught pre kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade and has served as a Site Administrator for an elementary school. Currently, she is a Teacher-in-Residence with Prezi and also a college and career advisor for Students Rising Above. Tracy grew up in northeast Ohio, and has lived in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Arizona, and Northern Virginia and has worked in the arts, in education and child abuse prevention. Her husband's job brought them to the Bay Area and there's no looking back! Tracy is mom to a 16-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son. Self-care includes getting to know her new community, having lunch with friends, pedicures, reading, cooking, crafting, and just being with her family.

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