Just as kids make mistakes in other areas of development, sometimes kids make mistakes as they learn social rules around sexuality. Luckily, parents can respond to most typical sexual behaviors exhibited by their kids with common parenting strategies (like redirection), education, and reinforcement of social rules around sexuality.

But how do you know when sexual behaviors become more concerning and need a higher level of intervention? We like how this chart, developed by the National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth, breaks it down.

When should you be concerned about sexual behaviors in children?

Frequency

  • High frequency

  • Excludes Normal Child Activities

  • Unresponsive (doesn’t decrease) to typical parenting strategies

Developmental Considerations

  • Happens between youth of different ages/developmental abilities

  • Behavior persists beyond typical developmental phase

  • Behavior interferes with social development

Harm

  • Intrusive behaviors

  • Includes force, intimidation, and/or coercion

  • Elicits fear and anxiety in other children

Frequency

When typical sexual development behaviors (such as self-touch or masturbation) occur at very high frequencies, begin to take the place of other activities, or continue despite the parent’s efforts, there may be underlying issues causing the behavior, such as anxiety, compulsivity, need for additional coping skills, or other influences that should be explored with the help of a licensed specialist.

Developmental Considerations

Sexual play and exploration, such as playing “doctor” or exploration of romantic relationships, is a natural part of development. However, these behaviors can become problematic when it involves kids of different age groups, lasts beyond its developmental phase (such as a teenager playing “doctor”), or when the behavior is holding the child back.

Harm

Intrusive behaviors that include experimenting with another child’s sexual body parts (like the buttocks, breasts, anus, or genitals) are more invasive for the child being acted upon and may have a negative impact. Additionally, any behaviors that include force, intimidation, coercion, or cause fear and anxiety in other children are serious red flags that need to be addressed. If behavior falls into this category, it’s especially important to consult a professional to navigate the situation and to get help for all children involved.

How do you respond if you discover another child or your child is displaying concerning sexual behaviors?

Here are some general principles that can help you respond to any situation. You can view these principles below, along with a few examples of different levels of response to specific situations.

Stay calm.

It’s natural to have strong emotional reactions when you discover another child or your own child showing concerning sexual behaviors. First, stay calm and clear about family rules around sexuality. This will help your child understand expectations without feeling shame. Second, reassure them of your love throughout the process, which can help them strengthen their relationship with you and with their developing sexuality. Finally, if the behavior is occurring because the child has been abused themselves, your calm responses to their behaviors will make it more likely for them to feel comfortable disclosing.

Provide education and consequences, if necessary.

Many kids are still in the process of learning about their bodies and the social rules around sexuality. Beyond providing developmentally appropriate education about sex and about the body, you can help provide clear rules about social situations (e.g., “it’s not okay to touch someone else’s body parts without permission”), information about how to treat people (e.g., “a true friend won’t try to get you to break rules”), and reinforcement about how to respect their own body. Consequences may be necessary if the behavior is serious enough or there is a clear rule that has been broken or if the law has been broken. If you need help on how to educate or provide appropriate consequences, the National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth is a great resource for additional support.

Seek professional help.

Some situations may be more difficult to navigate than others, and it’s important to have support as you make critical decisions. Fortunately, many resources have been developed for you and the children involved to help you navigate this potentially unfamiliar territory. Call the Childhelp National Hotline (1-800-422-4453) to speak to a trained professional. Some parents may be afraid to report illegal behavior, however, besides being a legal requirement in most states, reporting can show your child how to take appropriate responsibility for actions, and that forward movement is possible.

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