Help Me Grow | United Way of Utah County

Early Childhood: Sexual Behavior: Part 1

 We all know it’s part of human nature and development, but many questions are associated with self-touch and sexual behavior in young children. It’s a sensitive topic for parents for many reasons: religious beliefs and personal values, inexperience in explaining body development and appropriate behaviors with children, uncertainty around what is typical at this young age range, and others.

Though we cannot expound on all reasons listed, the purpose of this first post (Part 1) is to briefly:

1 – Inform the parenting community on what to expect, in regards to sexual behavior, in children between the ages of about 2 years and 5 years of age,

2 – and Explain how to communicate appropriate behaviors to small children.

A second post (Part 2) will be published later to go over these topics:

3 – How to promote healthy boundaries and communication with trusted adults,

4 – and What you (the parent) should do when something doesn’t seem to be right about your child’s sexual behaviors.

The Behaviors

Self-touch and body exploration begin quite early in the life of a child, beginning even in the womb. From pulling, undressing, poking, and rubbing, parents are bound to see their child do at least one of these transient behaviors around the time their child enters toddlerhood. It is helpful to view the typical sexual behaviors of a child as body exploration as they begin to realize all of their body’s abilities.

This table of behaviors was reformatted from a report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2009, entitled Evaluation of Sexual Behaviors in Children.

As we begin to see the normal behaviors listed above in the first two columns, these actions can be guided through ongoing lessons of body parts and functions, social skills, and any values you wish to teach in a simple, age-appropriate way.

Communicating Appropriate Behaviors

When these behaviors begin happening, parents can distract or redirect their children to a behavior that is more acceptable. This is often done by clearly stating certain manners and social skills like privacy and decency, which can be simply stated as, “exploring your body is something done in private or when no one else is around.” If the behavior involves viewing or touching/being touched by other children near their age, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests explaining respecting their own and other people’s bodies and private parts. A solid rule to share would be their and others’ body parts that are covered by a swimsuit are considered private parts. Be prepared to receive a few questions, and sometimes having to repeat yourself!

Some may wonder if it’s important to give specific anatomical terms when explaining body parts and functions. The answer is yes, and for a few reasons, but the main reason is to help children understand which are “private” parts in contrast to others, and what makes them private (back to the swimsuit rule).

Last of all, when communicating appropriate behaviors to your young one, remember to not blame, shame, or castigate them for something they are doing either carelessly or innocently. Like we pointed out in the beginning, these behaviors are just expressions of their self-exploration, of a new body they are just learning for themselves. When in doubt, always lean on teaching instead of screeching!

This topic is one that needs to be discussed on an ongoing basis, even into adolescence. Starting early decreases confusion in children and increases the likelihood of appropriate behaviors and comfort with communication in both parent and child. Read more on this topic with the upcoming Part 2, or call a Parent Support Specialist at Help Me Grow Utah at 801-691-5322 with any specific questions in regard to your child’s development and/or sexual behavior.

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