Understanding Sexual Behaviors Among Children
Sex is something that most of us participate in, gain enjoyment from, and even utilize to create families. It’s something that people have shamed, derided, and made out to be a disgusting act (usually stemming from traumatic experiences, misinformation or implicit negative messaging). So I am choosing to talk about sex openly in my next few blogs--which makes me pretty radical. Did you know that Louisiana does not require instruction in sexual health education at any grade level but does allow sexual health education to be taught in grades 7th –12th?
I decided in January 2020 to pursue a certification in Sex Education so that I could talk about sex in an informed, empathic, and nurturing way. Because it’s important. Because we don’t do talk about it, and because people deserve to have someone to talk to about sex and sexuality without judgement.
My Sex Education journey began years ago when I attended a local counseling conference. There I learned about Problematic Sexual Behaviors of children and ways in which mental health professionals can help children who act out sexually. From there I worked at an agency that provided therapeutic services to families who often dealt with sexual behaviors happening within the home among other presenting concerns. Situations like parents*(see below) observing children touching each other, or themselves or children having poor physical boundaries with other adults. Often parents would share these experiences in hushed tones, fearful of judgement, and worried about what it meant that their children were engaging in such behaviors. I felt compelled to educate fellow clinicians on sexual behaviors in children and how to normalize certain behaviors.
Normal Sexual Behavior for Children
Children exploring their bodies
Children being inquisitive about other's bodies
Children touching themselves to self-soothe
It feels weird to include children, sexual behaviors and normal in one sentence but it’s true! There is a spectrum of behaviors you can expect from children that occur naturally throughout their growth and development. When we consider that children learn by doing and are very tactile in nature it makes sense that when they discover their genitals, they will more than likely touch them on occasion. Why? Because they’re learning that they have them, and because it feels good. From there, some children begin to realize that there are different types of genitals and may want to explore—often parents will discover similar aged playmates “playing doctor” or that they have undressed in front of one another and are maybe touching each other. There are even countless scenarios that include children touching themselves at nap time to self-soothe. Again—all normal development.
How parents respond to these moments sets the tone for their child’s sexual development. Parents play a vital role in helping their children make sense of their bodies and how their bodies exist in the world. Just because your child is enacting sexual behaviors does not mean that they have been molested or that they will become sexual deviants. I cannot stress that enough. All the examples listed above are, again, to be expected in children who are learning and growing.
So how do parents help their children?
They give them language—words to help children describe their body parts. This serves multiple purposes. When children know the correct anatomical names for their genitals then they can communicate to their parents when something is wrong. Teaching children the appropriate name for their genitals also empowers them. They come to realize that their vagina or penis is simply another part of their body that needs to be taken care of. This also allows for children to let trusted adults know when or if someone has been inappropriate with them.
Lessons to implement:
Language; teach your children the proper names of their genitals
Appropriate VS Inappropriate touch; teach your children who is allowed to touch them and when
Physical Boundaries; Teach your child the importance of privacy
Language is the foundation. The next lesson is to teach about appropriate and inappropriate touch. Teaching a child about who is allowed to touch them and where they are allowed to touch them is essential. There are fantastic books out there that help teach this lesson and allow for adults to continue this conversation with children until they can fully understand. Think of this as an effort to help protect your child—when a family makes the decision to speak openly about body parts and physical boundaries, they are modeling a healthy, appropriate relationship with their body. Children look to their trusted adults as examples of how to act. It can be as simple as, “Mommy needs to go shower, I am going to go into the bathroom and shut the door. When we use the restroom, we deserve privacy.” Again, you accommodate for the age of your child and can expand upon your explanations as they get older but often the simplest response is the best.
Parents are often fearful of showcasing sexual behavior within the family home, and rightfully so---it is important to keep media content and sexual behaviors to a minimum in front of children. The logic behind this is simple—children do not possess the capacity to understand and process sexual media meant for adults. Their brains are still growing and are not yet ready to understand the nuance of sexuality in that context. Utilizing parental locks and controls on TVs, tablets and any other technology is greatly encouraged. When adults in the home engage in sexual behaviors they should do so in a private manner, away from their children. It is also important to know, however, that if children happen to catch a glimpse of sexual behavior among the adults in the home (e.g., little Johnny walks into mom & dad’s bedroom at night after having a nightmare and finds them in a compromising position) it’s okay! Research indicates that children who grow up in sex positive (an attitude towards human sexuality that regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable) homes end up cultivating sex positive attitudes themselves. Parents who are open to talking to their children about sex and sexual activity create a safe environment for children to learn and explore (of course in a manner that is age appropriate).
Abnormal Sexual Behaviors in Children
Behavior that includes force, coercion, & threats
Behavior among children with significant age disparity
Behavior among children with significant size disparity
Behavior that results in feelings of distress
So, what about abnormal sexual behaviors in children? Telltale signs of negative sexual behavior among children include play that involves force, coercion, or threats. Play among children whose ages vary significantly (e.g., a 12-year-old boy engaging in sexual play with a 4-year-old girl), and when the play results in distress in one or both children involved. Age disparity with regards to sexual play is significant because an older child may possess more information about sex, and subsequently enact behaviors that are not considered appropriate for a smaller child.
How do parents combat this potential negative sexual behavior?
Through intentional boundary setting
Open and honest talks with your children
I would recommend any children engaging in such behavior be placed in therapeutic services—play therapy has yielded great results in helping children make sense of their feelings and behaviors. Parents can also benefit from therapy to process the feelings around these incidents. Collaboration between therapists working with the family can also reap great results so that the entire family system feels supported and empowered. I invite parents who are concerned about their children's behavior to contact me to potentially begin services to successfully create an open, safe environment within their home. Parents deserve support, understanding and hope just as much as their children when it comes to addressing these concerns.
Parents deserve support
The goal of this blog is to educate and encourage families to speak openly with their children. Raising children is hard in and of itself, so to add to that struggle a sexual component—it probably feels scary, uncertain and an indication of how well one is parenting. I want parents to know that this behavior is to be expected, and that there are resources out there to help. If a child in your life is enacting sexual behaviors, even behaviors that fall within the normal range, you can always ask for help and utilize therapy to strengthen your parenting skills.
*Parents in the context of this blog include any adult who is responsible for caring for a child. Parenting doesn’t necessarily mean biological relationships but rather an active caregiver role in a child’s life.