When considering sexual abuse, it is helpful to understand what constitutes typical sexual behaviors displayed by children so you may better recognize what could be cause for concern. Children first learn about appropriate sexuality from their parents and caregivers, who share the family’s values and beliefs regarding sexuality. These values influence how they react to their children’s displays of sexuality. Some parents may have an open attitude toward nudity and adult affection and encourage their child’s sexual self-expression, whereas other parents may encourage modesty, be reserved in adult displays of affection and discourage their child’s sexual behaviors. What matters most to your child is that the family’s sexual values are taught in a consistent, compassionate and age-appropriate manner.

The majority of children engage in sexual behaviors. Thirty to forty-five percent of children under age 10 have touched their parents’ breasts or genitals at least once. Observable sexual behaviors, such as masturbation, peak during the preschool years and start to decrease after age five. These behaviors generally do not happen often and pass quickly, and the child can be easily distracted or redirected to more acceptable behaviors.

Older children typically show more interest in the opposite sex, “playing doctor,” looking at photographs of nudity, drawing sexual pictures or using sexual words and asking about sex.

Children, especially preschool children, often imitate sexual behaviors they have heard or seen. It is important to model the behaviors that are acceptable to you and to protect your child from seeing sexually explicit materials, which can be found in magazines, in television shows, in movies, or on the Internet.

The charts on the next page list common sexual behaviors in childhood, based on age. Remember, children develop at their own pace, so some overlap may occur in the behaviors listed; this is common and should not be cause for alarm. (Source: National Child Traumatic Stress Network)