Developmentally, preschoolers are at the stage of their growth where they are naturally curious about the world around them and want to explore everything which includes their bodies, gender differences and everything related to sexuality.
Behaviors in the Normal Range for Preschoolers
Many parents, teachers, and other adults are confused about what is normal play and exploration and what is concerning behaviors when it has to do with sex and sexuality of children. Their own personal experiences may color their beliefs about children’s behavior.
Children at this age are curious about their bodies and the bodies of others. They ask about genitals, intercourse, and babies. They are interested in bathroom functions; watching people in the bathroom, using “dirty” words for bathroom functions as well as for sex and genitals. They want to explore their bodies, compare them to same-age peers and simulate the roles of mommy and daddy.
Children engage in sexual behavior in solitary and also at times with same-age peers. Groups of children make up games with a sexual theme; the children mutually agree to participate and the games are usually fraught with silliness. When one child wants to stop, the others stop as well. A child discovered engaging in sexual behaviors may feel guilt or shame; but if the adult treats it as normal, those feelings will most likely dissipate.
A few examples of normal sexualized behavior for a preschooler include:
- Showing others their genitals or comparing genitals to same-aged friends; wanting to touch the genitals or be touched by same-aged peers
- Touching or rubbing their genitals when going to sleep, when tense, excited or afraid
- Playing games that are related to sex and sexuality with same-aged children such as playing doctor
Behaviors of Preschoolers That are Concerning
Behaviors in the normal range of behavior for preschoolers can start to extend out of the “normal” boundaries and can then become concerning. Often this is more prevalent in children as they enter first through fourth grade; however, these behaviors can also be seen in preschoolers.
Concern about children’s behaviors arise when children seem to focus on sex and sexuality to a greater extent than their peers; or the focus much exceeds interest in other areas of the child’s environment. The exploration takes place in secret, more covertly, and the difference in ages expands in the group exploration. The wider the age range within the group; the more concern it brings.
Generally, children who are overly anxious, tense, or confused about sexual issues raise concerns. Furthermore, children who are continuously involved in sexual activity raise concerns. Some behaviors to look for that may be cause for concern include:
- Continues to touch or rub genitals in public after being told “no”; masturbates on furniture or with objects
- Humps other children with clothes on; imitates sexual behavior with dolls or stuffed toys
- Wants to play games related to sex and sexuality with much younger children
- Continuously wants to compare, touch or stare at the genitals of much older or much younger children or adults; asks adults to touch him/her genitals
- Tries to engage in oral, anal, or vaginal sex
- Puts something in own genitals and/or rectum when it feels uncomfortable; puts something in the genitals and/or rectum of another child
Behaviors Indicating a Need to Seek Help from a Mental Health Professional
Parents don’t want to believe their children are behaving in such a way it requires professional assistance. However, behaviors of a sexual nature can lead to much more problematic issues as the child grows.
Behaviors involving manipulation or coercion are the most concerning and generally fall into the category of “time to seek professional help.” When determining whether or not a behavior is problematic, it is important to consider the everyday interaction between the child and his/her peers. Generally when children are aggressive and controlling in their relationships with other children; they will have the same type of relationship when sexual behaviors are occurring.
When other children repeatedly complain about a child’s sexual behavior even after the issue has been addressed with that child; it is advisable to seek professional help. Professional advice should also be sought when there are elements of anger, anxiety, tension, fear, coercion, manipulation, force or ongoing compulsive interest and activity in sexual behavior. These behaviors can include those that would require a child abuse report to be filed. Examples of behaviors that indicate a need for professional help include:
- Sexual knowledge that is beyond the expectation for the age
- Forces or manipulates another child to play doctor or other sex related games
- Refuses to put on clothes; exposes self in public even after being disciplined numerous times
- Touches or rubs self in public or private to the exclusion of normal childhood activities masturbates on people or to nude pictures
- In drawings, the genitals stand out as most prominent feature; drawings of intercourse, group sex
- Asks people to take off their clothes; tries to forcibly undress people
- Forced or mutual oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with other children
- Over familiarity with strangers; talks in a sexualized manner with unknown adults
- Sneakily or forcibly touches genitals, breasts, buttocks of adults; tries to manipulate adults into touching him/her
- Any coercion or force in putting something in genitals/rectum of another child
- Sexual behaviors with animals
It is important to remember all children are different and are the sum of their own personalities, experiences, and training. Cultural and societal factors should be considered in any assessment of a child’s behavior. However, these guidelines are within acceptable limits of most societies; and certainly the western culture.
Toni Cavanagh Johnson, Ph.D. “Behaviors Related to Sex and Sexuality in Preschool Children” presentation 1991.
Friedrich, William N. Ph.D. and et al. “Normative Sexual Behavior in Children,” Pediatrics. 88 (3) September 1991:456-464.
The copyright of the article “Preschooler Behaviors Related to Sexuality” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing
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