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What is normal sexual play and behaviour in young children?

There is so much worry about child abuse today, that many people are afraid to give their children the loving care they need, for fear of being accused of abuse. A certain amount of sexual play is common in preschool children, and it is easy to confuse a child’s normal sexual behaviour with signs of possible sexual abuse.
Most well adjusted children will customarily pass through several stages of sexual interest and play.

Small babies may discover that touching their genitals can feel good, and can be comforting. As far as they are concerned, it is rather like sucking their thumb or rubbing their nose – they won’t attach any other meaning to these actions. Baby boys may have erect penises when nappies are removed.

Many two-year-olds will show an interest in the way boys and girls urinate, and in the physical differences between the sexes.

Three-year-olds may talk about the differences between boys and girls, and are usually still interested in urinating. Girls may try to urinate standing up.

By four, children are becoming more conscious of their genitals, buttocks and naval, and may play games of “show”, and “doctor”. Their interest moves to toilets and the language involved with elimination – ‘poohs’, ‘wees’, ‘pooh-face’. Still interested in the bodies of others, four-year-olds may demand privacy for themselves.

Five-and six-year-olds become more modest, but undertake mutual investigation of each other’s bodies. At this age they are conscious of social taboos, and are more likely to experiment in private. They may giggle about words related to bodily functions, but still ask questions about sexual differences.

Exploring, touching and playing ‘sexual’ games are a normal part of growing up when children are playing with others of their own age and development. The general rule of thumb is that children are within a 4-year development span of each other. Such mutually agreed play does not mean that children have been abused, although occasionally the child may worry about getting into trouble for playing ‘rude’ games, and tell you that someone else made them play.

Most children from around two years onwards will play with their own genitals in a way that parents often consider masturbation. While occasional guidance and distraction may be needed to help children understand what behaviour is acceptable, they should not be left feeling bad or guilty. Adults’ strong reactions are likely to be more damaging than the actions themselves.

When to be concerned

When children are involved in sexual play with older or more powerful children, or have been coerced o by an older child to join in play that makes them uncomfortable, adult intervention is needed.

Although there are often other logical explanations for what you observe, you should be concerned about a child who:
* Has genital injuries or infections, or a sexually transmitted disease.
* Has a knowledge of sexual issues and behaviour outside what could be expected for the child’s age.
* Shows compulsive, or explicit sexual play with other children, or who masturbates excessively. A certain level o play is quite normal, but when it becomes compulsive, adults should seek advice.
* Shows fear of certain situations or people – going home, going to the baby sitter’s.
* Tells of being touched in a way that makes them uncomfortable or scared.
* Tells of seeing ‘rude’ pictures or of someone taking ‘rude’ pictures of them.
* Has a noticeable change in behaviour, or starts to act out of character. This is an extremely important indicator, but do not forget that there are many incidents in a child’s life that could worry them and lead them to act strangely. A child with a marked change in behaviour may benefit from talking to a professional who can help sort out the cause.
* Regresses or withdraws.

Remember that many of the above can have non-abusive causes, and while we need to be alert, we must also, “never assume”.

What should you do if you believe a child has been abused?

Five simple rules will help you do the very best for children.
1. If a child tells you that they have been abused, believe the child, tell them you are glad they told you, and explain that you will be getting some help. Never question a child about what happened. There are experts who are trained to do that and who can ensure that the child doesn’t have to repeat the story.
2. If you have suspicions, or a ‘gut’ feeling, act on your concerns. Don’t wait for someone else to act.
3. Never act alone. Talk your concerns through with someone experienced.
4. Keep notes of your concerns or what you have seen or heard. Try and recall the exact words a child used, or the date of, and the changes you noticed in a child’s behaviour.
5. Do not make promises to a child or family that you may not be able to keep. You personally, may not have any control for example, over who else gets told. You can promise that you will do your very best to help.

Intervening to help a child at risk is emotionally draining and difficult. It can bring back feelings, or trigger personal memories, and make us worry whether we are doing the right thing. It is most important that adults can seek help and support for themselves.

Getting Help
You can discuss it with a social worker from the Department of Child Youth and Family. This department is the place with the expertise to advise you about the next step to take. You have the right to be listened to and have your questions answered. You can talk anonymously at first, and give the details later, as you become more sure. CYF: 0508 326459

Help and advice is also available from local services. You may talk to these agencies about your worries, but please note, this is not the same as making a referral.

Staff at CPS are happy provide further information about help available., 07 8383370

Jigsaw is the national umbrella group of local NGO child protection agencies that specialise in helping in this area. The Jigsaw website will help you locate a service near you.
The Ministry of Social Development also has a website with useful contacts nationally. Family Services Directory

There are only two statutory agencies that have the power to investigate and act on your report. They are the Child Youth and Family, and the Police. Child Youth and Family are required by law to follow up any concerns, while the Police will act on a report that a crime has been committed.

If you fear for the safety of a child, please seek help. You are protected by law if you refer in good faith and find there is no proven abuse.

It is not only the child who needs help. The other family members will need information, emotional and practical support.

CPS can be contacted at:,
PO Box 5375 Hamilton, Ph 07 8383370
 What is normal sexual play and behaviour in young children?

3 Responses to What is normal sexual play and behaviour in young children?

  1. stefan says:

    This is an excellent report and outline of general guidelines. I’ve been wanting to post something about babies and toddlers touching their genitals – as Noah plays with his little schlong any opportunity he gets. We’ve been pretty relaxed about it and certainly don’t want to start telling him off (which I think was the general practice in previous generations). I think it is very important that children develop a sense of their body and sexuality. So the CPS report is excellent in providing a few guidelines. Especially when it comes to spotting potential problems in the development of sexuality or abuse.


  2. anonymous says:

    is it normal for a 3 year old boy to insert forgein objects in butt? example: q-tips, that sort of thing

  3. stefan says:

    Hi – it’s always tricky to define “normal” … and he might just be exploring his body (like many 2/3 year-old boys play with their penises). As with many things with young children if you don’t give it too much attention (as long as he is not hurting himself) it will probably pass.

    Obviously there is some kind of health risk (if he keeps doing it) so you may need to set clear boundaries that it is not safe for him to do this (just like it isn’t safe to be near fire etc). It’s not so much about sexual behaviour but more about health and safety I guess.

    Anyway – if you are at all worried it’s probably best to check with your primary health care provider or a health service helpline.


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