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Childhood sexuality

6-minute read

Sexuality is a natural, normal part of being a whole person. It is about love and intimate relationships, about feelings, values and attitudes. Feeling comfortable with sexual identity is part of your child’s healthy development. You can help them to do that by talking openly about sex and sexuality.

It is normal and healthy for children to show sexual behaviour that is appropriate for their age group. This includes masturbation, curiosity about their own and other children’s bodies and asking about and later exploring sexuality. This kind of behaviour is harmless and to be expected.

Normal sexual behaviour in children

From the time they are only a few weeks old, all babies, if allowed, will touch and explore their bodies. They enjoy the pleasure of physical contact, including nice feelings they get when they stroke their genitals, or when they stimulate them by rubbing their legs together or their bodies against some object such as a pillow.

Parents often don’t expect this sort of behaviour, and some may feel anxious or uncomfortable about it. However, babies are not born feeling ashamed, embarrassed or guilty about their bodies. They learn these attitudes from the verbal and non-verbal messages they receive from their parents and other adults during their early years.

It is important not to confuse our opinions and values on sexuality with what is normal behaviour for children.

Masturbation

Masturbation is a healthy part of development. It can make a positive contribution to your child's future sexual health. Feeling guilty about masturbation is really the only undesirable aspect of it.

When a young child masturbates, it is best to ignore it or handle the situation tactfully. As the child grows older, parents can help develop the understanding that, while the behaviour itself is normal, it is best done in private. Between the ages of 5 and 9, your child is likely to become more secretive about self-touching.

Some children masturbate more than others, and some not at all. They may do it because they need comfort, because they are bored or tired, or just because it feels good. However, when children masturbate to the exclusion of other activities, it may indicate that they are feeling unhappy, anxious or stressed, and they need professional help.

Sexual curiosity

When children reach the stage of asking and learning names for things, they become curious about gender differences and want to give the names of body parts. Teach them the correct names for these parts.

Children need to know the differences between genitals and body shapes in men, women and children. They need to know that, although they are different, boys and girls are equally wonderful and important.

Whether parents allow themselves to be seen naked or not is a matter of personal preference. What is important is that parents are comfortable in their own behaviour, and realise that other people may have different attitudes.

Sex play

Almost all children engage in sex play at some stage, sometimes with children of the same sex and sometimes the opposite sex. Do not be surprised if you find your child playing a game of 'You show me yours, and I'll show you mine' with a friend of about the same age.

Natural curiosity causes this sex play. They are exploring their own bodies and those of other children. In this way, they learn about differences and similarities, and get practical reassurance.

Mostly this kind of play is positive, harmless and expected. It is not bad, dangerous or perverted, and for the most part adults can ignore it.

Children normally play these sex games for short periods of time and are easily distracted. If you feel more comfortable, suggest calmly that they stop, get dressed and play something else. Talk in a way that does not cause the children to feel ashamed or guilty.

Imitation, fantasy and role playing

Children are great imitators. Through make-believe play, they act out thoughts and feelings that may involve genital play.

Parents are sometimes concerned when a small boy shows a preference for stereotyped girl activities, such as playing with dolls or dressing up in women’s clothes. This is usually a passing phase — a small boy wishing temporarily to imitate and identify with his mother, and practising the caring and tender side of fathering. It does not, as some adults assume, indicate a tendency towards homosexuality. In the same way, girls may adopt tomboyish behaviour.

In most cases these children are quite happy with the gender nature made them. They just enjoy doing some activities that some adults may see as belonging traditionally to the other sex.

It’s normal for all children and teenagers to experiment with gender roles through dress and role playing and most will go on to feel comfortable with the gender they were given at birth.

If your child identifies as gender diverse — or has gender dysphoria — how they dress can be a way to express their preferred gender. For example, they may refuse to wear particular clothes and declare that they are not a boy or a girl.

Raising Children Network has more information on gender diversity and gender dysphoria.

Developing positive attitudes

All babies and children enjoy their bodies and have good feelings about them. Adult values and attitudes are communicated to children through what parents and other adults do or say, how they do or say it and what they don't do or say.

It is vital to keep an open, positive, comfortable communication line between yourself and your child beginning as early as possible, so that it will continue into the teen years. Find out what your children know, answer any sexual questions they have calmly with facts and correct any misinformation. Use the conversation to tell them about some of your own and family values.

Comfortable reactions and communication encourage children to develop positive attitudes about the broad role that sexuality plays in our lives. Remember:

  • Sexuality is a natural part of being a man or woman.
  • Sex play in children is normal.
  • Comfortable communication helps develop positive attitudes to sexuality.

Uncommon or problem sexual behaviours

Children do not develop a healthy attitude towards sex by watching adults engage in explicit sexual activities or intercourse, be it observing their parents, other adults or watching TV programs or movies. They find it confusing and frightening, and may become emotionally distressed. It is hard for young children to understand this adult behaviour, which they may interpret as anger or an attack, rather than passion and excitement.

Parents need to be aware that certain overtly sexual behaviour may indicate that a child has been exposed to adult sexual situations or possible sexual abuse. For example, you should be concerned if children:

  • imitate or try to have sexual intercourse, for example with a toy
  • keep rubbing or touching their genitals in public, even when you tell them to stop
  • interact sexually with kids who are at least 4 years older or younger than them, or force another child into sexual play
  • engage in sexual behaviour that is painful, physically aggressive, involves force or causes emotional distress
  • play with toys in a sexual way
  • try oral-genital contact
  • touch the genitals of unfamiliar adults or keep looking at other people’s private parts
  • show obsessive or aggressive sexual behaviour and become angry if distracted

Consult a child health nurse, your doctor or paediatrician if your child is engaging in this kind of overtly sexualised behaviour. Always seek professional advice if you suspect that your child may have been sexually abused.

If you are concerned about the possible sexual abuse of any child you know, you can call the relevant state or territory department responsible for protecting children.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2021


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Sexual behaviour: toddlers | Raising Children Network

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