What's Normal Sexual Behavior in Young Children?

Pediatricians can help parents figure out what’s typical and when to intervene.

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"Sexual behavior in children" is a phrase guaranteed to make most parents break out in a sweat, particularly when the children in question are 2 to 6 years old. But after my own initial freakout, I found the new clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics actually reassuring. It gives doctors and parents a clear sense of when a child's sexual behavior may signal physical or sexual abuse, and when it's normal—giving a parent the chance for a little lesson on appropriate behavior.

But first, the freakout. Here's the list of what the pediatricians say is normal, common sexual behavior in 2- to 6-year-olds:

  • Touching/masturbating genitals in public or private
  • Looking at or touching a peer's or new sibling's genitals
  • Showing genitals to peers
  • Standing or sitting too close to someone
  • Trying to see peers or adults naked
  • Gack! The good news is that these behaviors are usually fleeting and few. When they do happen, parents can redirect the child to more appropriate behavior with a line like "Grownups do that in private, and you should, too." I'm grateful to Harvard pediatrician Mark Schuster and his wonderful book, Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (but Were Afraid They'd Ask), for this and other useful responses I could never think up on the spot. Even small children are expert at picking up on when parents are embarrassed, and they may repeat sexual behavior to get a parent's attention, pediatricians say. So I'm going to have to learn how to keep cool while talking about masturbation and other steamy subjects.

    But we parents also need to know when a child's sexual behavior is not normal. The pediatricians say that sexual behaviors like these are rarely normal and can signal physical or sexual abuse:

    • Any sexual behaviors that involve children four or more years apart
    • Different sexual behaviors displayed on a daily basis
    • Sexual behavior that causes emotional or physical pain
    • Sexual behavior associated with physical aggression
    • Sexual behavior that involves coercion
    • Coercion can be hard to explain to young children. Schuster suggests saying: "It isn't nice to make someone do something he doesn't want to do. I only want you to play like that with you friend if he wants to do it also." Or, if you think your child is being coerced, you might say: "Has anyone ever made you do something like that that you didn't want to do?"

      With these new guidelines for pediatricians, the hope is that doctors will be well prepared when parents come to them with concerns about children's sexual behavior. Ideally, both parents and doctors will know when it's time to be worried and take action, or when we grownups can say, "Hey, that's normal, I can deal with it."

      I interviewed Mark Schuster earlier about his innovative sex-ed program for parents, which he conducts during lunch hour at parents' offices. His top advice: Think through your own feelings about sex before talking, and think of the "talk" as an ongoing conversation. Social psychologist Steven Martino also has good advice for parents who dread talking with their kids about sex: More sex talk is better.