Understanding children’s sexual development

It can be scary and uncomfortable to discover children engaging in sexual behaviour. Parents’ and caregivers’ reaction to this behaviour is important for a child’s understanding of themselves and their world.


Normal "range" of sexual development

Birth - 2 years 3 - 4 years 5 - 7 years 8 - 12 years 13+ years
Exploration of genitals and other body parts Gender identity develops; may talk about private body parts Exploration of adult roles (playing house); may talk about private parts Frequently curious (including about sexuality) New significance attached to sexuality (greater interest)
Experience awareness of genital pleasure Touching/humping may occur Body exploration with peers common (playing doctor) Body exploration common; may masturbate for pleasure or comfort Beginning of puberty and physical changes Sexual fantasies as way of preparing for and understanding sexual roles; may masturbate
Boys can get erections, girls can get vaginal lubrication Self-stimulation for pleasure or comfort – unless taught no Adoption of bathroom terminology – strong influence of peers Peer group strong influence on self-image may ask about relationships Even greater influence by peer group; interest in romantic relationships
Kisses and hugs others Curious about and may look at other’s private body parts; limited understanding of privacy needs Become modest about own body; increased understanding about privacy May masturbate, sometimes to orgasm; masturbation occurs in private; aware of need for privacy May have sexual attraction or experience with other-sex and/or same-sex (does not necessarily indicate orientation)


There are a few things to keep in mind when responding to your child’s sexual behavior.
When responding to a child’s sexual behaviour, advice for parents and caregivers includes:

  • try to avoid making assumptions about what the behaviour means and why the child is engaging in it
  • ask open-ended questions to begin understanding from the child’s perspective what is going on
  • try to remain calm and address the behaviour in a supportive and loving way. This is a prime opportunity to educate a child and teach what appropriate behaviour looks like
  • focus on redirecting inappropriate behaviour by providing appropriate alternatives, explaining why, where and when behaviour is appropriate or inappropriate, and educating children about good and bad touch
  • do not use condemning words or punishment. This conversation needs to be ongoing throughout a child’s life and in these conversations the child needs to be given the opportunity to ask questions and know that they can come to a parent or caregiver if they have questions, without being looked down on or judged.