Psychosexual development is part of children’s overall development. Some sexual behaviours are therefore healthy and normal. This section will help you better understand young children’s psychosexual development and to distinguish between normal behaviour and sexual behaviour problems.
Healthy sexual behaviours in young children
Healthy sexual behaviours in young children are motivated by:
- Sensory pleasure-seeking.
Like other spheres of development, psychosexual development evolves quickly and at a different pace for each child. To help you better understand healthy behaviours in young children, here is a look of the phases of their psychosexual development.
Sexual development in children aged from birth to 2
- I feel pleasure in exploring my environment by putting everything in my mouth.
- I explore my body with curiosity and pleasure.
- I can feel physical pleasure when my genital organs are stimulated (this is not associated with eroticization or with sexual fantasies).
- I am aware of sexual differences and I know if I am a girl or a boy.
- I like physical contact with others.
- My parents introduce me to potty training (around age 2); my focus area is the anus.
- I start to discover my body and I realize that not all children are made the same way.
- I enjoy games where I explore my genital organs (boys starting at 6-7 months; girls at 10-11 months).
- I take pleasure in recognizing all the parts of my body; I love to be asked “Where’s your nose?” or “Show me your ears!”
Sexual development in children aged 3–5
- I’m in a period where I am particularly likely to show sexual behaviours.
- I demonstrate curiosity about anatomical differences between men and women.
- I take pleasure in exploring body parts with other children (playing doctor, looking at myself naked in the mirror).
- I enjoy taking my clothes off and showing myself naked in front of others.
- I start by asking questions about urination (“Where does peepee come from?”), conception (“How are babies made?”), pregnancy, birth, genital organs and so forth.
- I feel physical pleasure when my genital organs are stimulated (this is not associated with eroticization or with sexual fantasies).
- I explore my genital organs (self-stimulation) and I become aware that I feel pleasure when I touch them.
- I become closer with my opposite-sex parent.
- I discover and experiment with new behaviours and gender roles through play (for example, playing at being daddy or mommy, playing together and pretending to be girlfriend/boyfriend).
- I like to watch others when they are in the bathroom or taking their clothes off.
Did you know…
… that children may show frequent sexual behaviours, in part because this is an element of the psychosexual development of children aged from birth to 5, and in part because they still have difficulty understanding interpersonal boundaries and the difference between the private and public spheres (the concept of privacy).
Worrisome sexual behaviours and sexual behaviour problems in young children
Some sexual behaviours in young children should be cause for concern.
Sexual behaviours are worrisome if...
The sexual behaviours or ideas are inappropriate for the developmental stage.
The sexual behaviours are potentially harmful or cause suffering for the child or for others.
The sexual behaviours persist despite interventions regarding boundaries and privacy.
Sexual behaviour problems
What is a sexual behaviour problem?
Sexual behaviour problems can be understood as “behaviours involving sexual body parts, initiated by children aged 12 and under, that are developmentally inappropriate from a developmental perspective or that are potentially harmful to the child or others.” (Source: Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers [ATSA], 2006.)
The 8 criteria to consider
Eight criteria should be considered. They indicate that you’re facing a worrisome situation that requires more attention. The presence of a single criteria may be significant.
- Differences: age gap of more than 2 years, difference in size or status.
- Threats, pressure or constraints.
- Escalation of sexual activities: frequency, intensity, intrusiveness.
- Overwhelming: thoughts and activities always related to sexuality.
- Secrecy: imposed by one or more children or understood by the children involved.
- Children’s emotions and physical suffering; negative emotions or pain.
- Persistence despite interventions.
- Manipulation or blackmail.
What should you do if you think a child is presenting sexual behaviour problems?
If you have concerns or questions, call the parent line, and talk about it with the professionals that know your child at the daycare centre or preschool.