Zach Rawlings, MA, LPC

Licensed Professional Counselor

When Is My Child's Sexual Play Unhealthy?

One of the biggest misconceptions among parents is that children blossom instantaneously into their sexuality once they enter adolescence.  It comes as a surprise to many parents that children are born as sexual creatures.  Sure, that sexuality remains latent for most of their childhood, but it will usually manifest itself throughout your child’s early life.  All children go through sexual stages, though often times they do not have the adequate vocabulary to communicate what they are experiencing or thinking as they navigate those stages.

Children are wired to be sexual, but the “sexual switch” can get flipped earlier for some.  A child’s sexual knowledge and behavior is strongly influenced by many factors, including the child’s age, what the child observes, and what the child is taught.

Younger children (less than 4 years), typically display more immodest behavior and will often begin displaying natural curiosity—wanting to watch adults go to the bathroom, touching their genitals in public, etc.  This type of behavior is usually perfectly normal.

As children get older, they begin to intuitively understand the differences and similarities between their bodies and their peers’ bodies.  This can sometimes lead them to become more social in their interactions and explorations by partaking in activities like “playing doctor” and copying adult behaviors like kissing or holding hands.  Sometimes this exploration can result in children mutually touching one another, which can be disconcerting for many parents.  However, it’s important to remember that this type of behavior is usually typical in childhood sexual exploration.  According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, typical childhood sexual play usually:

  • Occurs between children who play together regularly and know each other well.
  •  Occurs between children of the same general age and physical size.
  • Is spontaneous and unplanned.
  • Is infrequent.
  • Is voluntary (both children agreed to the behavior).
  • Is easily diverted when parents tell children to stop and explain privacy rules.

While most often it is a normal part of development for children to seek sexual exploration, it is also important to be aware of the signs that could indicate an addressable issue, such as abuse.  Some common red flags to look out for as indicators that the sexual play may be unhealthy include any behavior that:

  •  Is clearly beyond a child’s developmental stage (i.e. a child wanting to kiss an adult’s genitals).
  • Involves threats, aggression, and force.
  • Involves children of widely different ages (i.e. a twelve-year-old “playing doctor” with a five-year-old).
  • Provokes a strong emotional reaction in the child.

No matter the types of play your child may take part in, remember to stay calm and try to understand if the situation is concerning.  The National Child Traumatic Stress Network recommends asking the following questions:

  • What were you doing?
  • How did you get the idea?
  • How did you learn about this?
  • How did you feel about doing it?

Many parents struggle to know how to ask these questions to their children because they can surface a great deal of discomfort within the parent.  However, talking to your children about sexuality is an important skill to learn in order to help your child navigate their exploration in a healthy way. Look for a way to connect with your child when asking these types of questions through lots of empathy and commonality.  Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable with your children (in an age-appropriate way) when talking to them about these uncomfortable topics.  For example, “I understand why you would be curious to know more about your brother’s private parts.  I know that I have been curious about other people’s bodies before too.  Can you tell me how you got the idea to spy on him while he was undressing?”

Above all, remember that you as a parent play a pivotal role in helping your child develop healthy attitudes and behaviors about sex.  Don’t rule out the importance of parental intuition.  If you still feel your child’s sexual behavior may be unhealthy or could be symptomatic of something concerning, seek professional help.