Defining Normal Sexual Behaviors in Kids

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In a new guide written to help doctors answer questions and offer parents reassurance and advice about appropriate responses, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reports that it's normal and common for young kids to be interested in nudity or to show off their bodies.

The AAP says that most kids engage in age-appropriate sexual behaviors at some point in childhood (more than half before their 13th birthday). For instance, the following are considered normal, common sexual behaviors in 2- to 6-year-olds:

  • touching/masturbating genitals in public or private
  • looking at or touching a peer's or new sibling's genitals
  • showing genitals to peers
  • standing or sitting too close to someone
  • trying to see peers or adults naked

Seeing a child engage in sexual behavior can alarm parents, making them worry about whether it's normal or an indication of sexual abuse, but the AAP says not to worry as long the acts are brief, occur infrequently, and the child easily can be easily distracted away from it.

The guide includes a table that rates sexual behaviors as either "normal, common"; "less common normal"; "uncommon"; and "rarely normal." Of particular concern are developmentally "inappropriate, intrusive, or abusive" behaviors, such as:

  • any sexual behaviors that involve children 4 or more years apart
  • different sexual behaviors displayed on a daily basis
  • sexual behavior that causes emotional or physical pain
  • sexual behavior associated with physical aggression
  • sexual behavior that involves coercion

Kids who engage in any of these might require referral to therapists for further assessment and treatment.

What This Means to You

Children are human beings and therefore sexual beings. It can be difficult for parents to acknowledge this, but even infants have curiosity about their own bodies, which is healthy and normal.

Toddlers will often touch themselves when they are naked, such as in the bathtub or while being diapered. At this stage of development, they have no modesty. Their parents' reaction will tell them whether their actions are acceptable. Toddlers should not be scolded or made to feel ashamed of being interested in their bodies.

It's natural for kids to be interested in their own bodies. Some parents may choose to casually ignore self-touching. Others may want to acknowledge that, while they know it feels good, it is a private matter. Parents can make it clear that they expect the child to keep sexual behaviors private.

Try not to overreact if you witness or hear of such behavior. Heavy-handed scolding is not the way to deal with it (and just the presence of a parent often is enough to stop the behavior). Instead, try to direct your child's attention to another activity without making a lot of fuss. Later, sit down with your child for a talk. Explain that although you understand the interest in his or her body (or a playmate's body), people are generally expected to keep their bodies covered in public. This way you have set limits without having made the child feel guilty.

This is also an appropriate age to begin to talk about good and bad touch. Tell kids that their bodies are their own and that they have the right to privacy. No one should touch kids if they don't like it or want it. Tell them that if anyone ever touches them in a way that feels strange or bad, they should tell that person to stop it and then tell you about it. Explain that you want to know about anything that makes your kids feel bad or uncomfortable.

If a child seems preoccupied with masturbation or other sexual behaviors to the exclusion of other activities, that's cause for concern and a call to your doctor, as victims of sexual abuse sometimes become preoccupied with acting out sexually.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: September 2009

Source: "The Evaluation of Sexual Behaviors in Children." Pediatrics, September 2009.

Related Resources

OrganizationAmerican Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) AACAP offers up-to-date information on child and adolescent development and issues.
OrganizationAmerican Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) The AAP is committed to the health and well-being of infants, adolescents, and young adults. The website offers news articles and tips on health for families.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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