- Reflect on your personal beliefs and cultural view of childhood sexual development and behavior.
- Define key terms for childhood sexual development and behavior.
- Understand factors to think of when analyzing sexual behavior.
Evaluating Beliefs and Defining Childhood Sexual Development
When you think of childhood sexual development, what comes to mind? Maybe you feel somewhat uncomfortable talking about anything related to sexuality and sexual behavior in children, or perhaps you think about sexual abuse. Some may think about specific incidents they encountered in their work as caregivers. There is no right or wrong reaction, and what you feel is influenced by your experience, knowledge, and culture. Take a moment to reflect on the following questions.
- What opportunities have I had to learn about sexual development?
- Was sexual development discussed in my family? In my school?
- How confident am I in my knowledge of childhood sexual development?
- How comfortable am I discussing sexual development and behavior with coworkers? With families?
Many adults, including seasoned child care professionals, have had little or no formal education or professional development on childhood sexual development. This topic may feel taboo, or not acceptable to talk about, because it is often left out of broader discussions on child development and well-being or only discussed from a child abuse and prevention perspective. For example, doctors monitor children’s physical growth and routinely ask questions about communication and motor skills. Unless concerns are brought up by parents, parents might find it surprising or even offensive if they are asked about their child’s sexual behavior. Because it is not commonly screened or talked about, sexual behavior is often thought of as a problem rather than a normal part of development. Families and professionals' lack of opportunities to learn and ask questions about childhood sexual behavior creates stigma--a feeling of shame or disgrace.
To expand your thinking and ease any discomfort you may feel about the topic of childhood sexual development and behavior, you must be able to define it. The following definition of sexual development will aid you in understanding what this area of development includes and help you to think of sexual development as a part within the umbrella of childhood development.
How is the above definition similar to or different from what you previously thought about childhood sexual development? Is your reaction to this definition different from the reaction you had at the start of this lesson? Sexual development is like any other area of child development, and you should feel confident in your ability to promote healthy behavior in children and youth. This course will help you know what to do if you observe sexual behavior in your program. Continue to think about all of the areas included in the definition: physical changes, knowledge and beliefs, and behaviors as you learn more and as you observe the children in your program. You may find it useful to review the Virtual Lab School (VLS) Physical Development course for information on the physical milestones and changes that occur throughout childhood.
Types of Childhood Sexual Behavior
If you think about the three types of childhood sexual behavior along a continuum, they are: normative, cautionary, and problematic. These terms will be used throughout this course to guide your thinking and support of childhood sexual behavior. Review the descriptions of each type in the table below. While these descriptions provide clear guidelines, know that the lines between these behaviors are not always clear.
The Continuum of Sexual Behavior
- Infrequent and random
- Developmentally typical
- Easily redirected
- No harm to self or others
- Usually occurs between children close in age or development who spend time together
Cautionary "Less Common"
- May be random or planned
- Developmentally typical but more preoccupation than is typical
- May not always be redirected
- May be somewhat disruptive to others
- Intentional and repeated pattern
- Advanced for development
- Difficult to redirect; continues after clear redirection; met with anger or strong emotion
- Frequently disruptive to others
- Forced harm to others; use of manipulation
- Interferes with normal interests, activities, and development
- May be a large age or developmental gap between children (2+ years younger)
To help clarify any confusion about the sexual behaviors you observe, consider the following factors to determine which of the three types above best describes the behavior to determine what action you should take.
Culture and Family Norms
You might think differently than some of your coworkers on culture and family norms. Differences in opinion are the result of the diverse experiences and viewpoints within a group of people. For example, some families use child-specific language when they teach their children words for their genitalia. You may have heard coworkers or families say “pee-pee” to mean penis or vulva; this is a common example of a child-specific word. Other parents and many experts feel it is important for children to learn the correct terms for all body parts. If you are not used to this, it may catch you off guard to hear a very young child use words such as “breasts” or “scrotum.” Language is one way family norms and culture influence children’s behavior and knowledge of their bodies and sexual development. See the Terminology document in the Learn section for a list of anatomically correct words and definitions. Also, consider other experiences families have had, such as trauma, deployment, and their formal and informal support when thinking about their culture and norms.
Sexual behavior (and all behavior) in children and youth is influenced by an individual child’s development. There may be differences between a child’s chronological age and their developmental ability. A child who is chronologically 8 years old but has cognitive and social-emotional skills similar to a 4-year-old, may not feel shyness or modesty about others seeing their body. If this child frequently walks out of the bathroom with their lower body exposed, you would view this behavior with the understanding that the child’s social-awareness and self-awareness are like that of a younger child. For this specific child, this may be a normative behavior. If the same behavior were observed in a developmentally typical 8-year-old however, the behavior may be viewed differently. Think about all areas of development, and refer to the Virtual Lab School Foundational Courses for specific information and resources.
Function of the Behavior
If you observe problematic sexual behavior in your program, think about why the child engaged in the behavior to help you assess whether it is a reaction to the environment or a more thought-out occurrence. Consider the cognitive development of children to determine the meaning of sexual behaviors. Around age 3, most children are just beginning to develop logical reasoning, the ability to put two ideas together, and understand complex cause and effect. This is also when children begin to ask “why” questions. Children who have not yet developed logical reasoning are not able to plan their actions very well. These children respond with behaviors that are a reaction to their environments rather than intentional choices. For example, a 15-month-old child who pushes other children when they become too close for the child’s liking is responding to their environment. Children at this stage of development do not intentionally create conflict or behave to be mean to others. Review the VLS Cognitive Development course to refresh your knowledge of this area.
Frequency and Participation
Normative sexual behaviors are usually random and infrequent, motivated by curiosity and play. Other types of sexual behavior happen at higher frequencies and may affect a child’s participation in other typical activities. Knowing how many times a behavior occurs over a period of time and if the child is limiting other activities due to increased interest than is typical in sexual behavior will help you determine the type of sexual behavior. A well-adjusted and typical 5-year-old discussing bodily functions and genitals only while in the bathroom is an example of a normative behavior that is likely driven by the child’s growing knowledge of how bodies function. Review the VLS Self & Cultural Understanding course to access information about how children develop their sense of self in relation to the world around them.
When sexual behavior occurs, think about the environment of the children involved. A 9-year-old who self-stimulates only when alone in the bedroom is an example of normative behavior. One’s bedroom is a safe and appropriate place for a child to explore their body and sexuality. Children at this developmental age understand what topics and activities are considered appropriate in public. If the same child were to engage in this behavior in the presence of peers and program staff while at an after-school program, then you may consider a different type of behavior and action steps. Remember that developmentally younger children (age 5 and under) typically don't yet have a strong sense of what is public versus private.
Effect on Others
Think about how sexual behaviors affect others when responding to and creating action plans. An 11-year-old who exposed his or herself to others in the bathroom to get a laugh out of peers has a different effect on others than if the same child exposed his or herself to a 4-year-old child. Who is affected and how other individuals are affected by a child’s sexual behavior helps you determine the type of sexual behavior. Think about whether involvement was (a) mutual or force or manipulation was used, (b) whether the affected children were annoyed, disturbed, or harmed, and (c) the age, size, and developmental differences of children.
Behavior that is common and typical for children is easily redirected, meaning that children stop unwanted behavior with developmentally fitting guidance and expectations. This is the same for normative sexual behavior. For example, two children touching each other in a “rough house” way while on the playground can be redirected toward different behavior. Rather than asking them to “stop,” you can redirect them by suggesting more appropriate activities such as taking turns pushing each other on the swings or pulling one another in a wagon. This provides these children guidance on acceptable touch and play while still fulfilling their need to be physically active. Children with sexual behavior that is outside of normative are less responsive to redirection and may express strong emotions such as anger when redirected. The Positive Guidance course and the Supporting Children with Challenging Behaviors Focused Topics course provides more information and resources on effective redirection.
Completing this Course
For more information on what to expect in this course, visit the Focused Topics Sexual Development & Behavior in Children & Youth Course Guide.
Please note that the References & Resources section at the end of each lesson outlines reference sources and resources for you to find additional information on the topics covered. As you complete lessons, you are not expected to review all the online references available. However, you are welcome to explore the resources further if you have interest, or at the request of a coach, trainer, or administrator.
Listen as experts discuss the importance of being aware of your beliefs on children’s sexual development and behavior and how sexual development is a part of overall child development. What factors or experiences from your childhood influence how you think of sexual development as an adult?
Know the Facts
You have now reflected on your personal beliefs and knowledge on childhood sexual development and behavior and also have a clear definition. Wherever you are in your path of learning, it is important that you have factual information; awareness helps destigmatize sexual behavior in children and youth and allows professionals to better support healthy development. Read the following research-based statements, and reflect on how this information influences your beliefs:
- Sexual behaviors are more commonly observed in children 5 years of age and younger (Friedrich et al., 1998).
- Many children demonstrate sexual behavior in peer settings (Phipps-Yonas et al., 1993).
- Most children will engage in sexual behavior at some point during childhood (Kellogg, 2009).
- Children with cautionary and problematic sexual behavior have not always been abused (Friedrich, 2001).
- Using developmentally appropriate information to educate youth about sex does not encourage advanced sexual behavior (Lindberg & Maddow-Zimet, 2012).
- Children with sexual behavior problems are not younger versions of adult sex offenders (Chaffin et al., 2006).
- Most children who receive treatment for sexual behavior do not continue the behavior into adolescence or adulthood (Silovsky, Swisher, Widdifield, & Burris, 2012).
Choose at least one Case Study below: infant and toddler, preschool, or school-age and complete the coordinating activities to deepen your knowledge of childhood sexual development and behavior. This activity will help you think about all of the parts of sexual development and the factors that influence sexual behavior. You will have the opportunity to revisit these case studies in later lessons to brainstorm action steps based on the sexual behavior described.
Case Study - Infant Toddler: Logan
Now that you have learned the definition, key terms, and factors to consider for childhood sexual development and behavior, complete the My Knowledge and Beliefs on Childhood Sexual Development activity to further reflect on what you know and feel.
Bancroft, J. (Eds.). (2003). Sexual development in childhood. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Chaffin, M., Berliner, L., Block, R., Cavanaugh Johnson, T., Friedrich, W., Garza Louis, D.,. . .Silovsky, J.F. (2006). Report on the Task Force on Children with Sexual Behavior Problems. Findings from the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. Retrieved from https://www.atsa.com/pdfs/Report-TFCSBP.pdf
Counterman, L. & Kirkwood, D. (2013). Understanding Healthy Sexuality and Development in Young Children. Voices of Practitioners (8)2, 1-13.
Friedrich, W.N., Fisher, J., Broughton, D., Houston, M., Shafran, C.R. (1998). Normative sexual behavior in children: A contemporary sample. Pediatrics, 101(4), e9-e9.
Friedrich, W. N., Fisher, J. L., Dittner, C. A., Acton, R., Berliner, L., Butler, J., … Wright, J. (2001). Child Sexual Behavior Inventory: Normative, Psychiatric, and Sexual Abuse Comparisons. Child Maltreatment, 6(1), 37–49.
Kellog, N.D., Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect. (2009). Clinical Report- The Evaluation of Sexual Behaviors in Children. Pediatrics (124)3, 992-8.
Lindberg, L.D. & Maddow-Zimet, I. (2012). Consequences of Sex Education on Teen and Young Adult Sexual Behaviors and Outcomes. Journal of Adolescent Health. 51(4), 332-338.
Lucier-Greer, M., Nichols, L. R., Peterson, C., Burke, B., Quichocho, D. & O’Neal, C.W. (2018). A brief guide to understanding and responding to normative and problematic sexual behaviors among children. Auburn, AL: Military REACH.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network & National Center on Sexual Behavior of Youth. (2009). Sexual Development and Behavior in Children- Information for Parents and Caregivers. Retrieved from https://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources/sexual_development_and_behavior_in_children.pdf
National Symposium on Sexual Behavior of Youth. (2020). PowerPoint presentations from pre-conference seminars and concurrent sessions. The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. Available from https://www.ouhsc.edu/nationalsymposiumsby/Program/Concurrent-Sessions and https://www.ouhsc.edu/nationalsymposiumsby/Program/Pre-Conference-Seminars
Phipps-Yonas, S., Yonas, A., Turner. M., Kamper, M. (1993). Sexuality in early childhood: the observations and opinions of family daycare providers. CURA Reporter. (23) 1-5.
Silovsky, J.F., Swisher, L.M., Widdifield, J., & Burris, L. (2012). Clinical considerations when children have problematic sexual behavior. In Handbook of Child Sexual Abuse. Pp. 399-428.