Sylvia K. Neal, LCSW, PLLC, Tucson Therapist Psychotherapy Services in Tucson, AZ  

What is ‘normal sexual behavior’ in children?

By Sylvia K. Neal, LCSW, MSW © 2007

I don’t know how many parents have asked me, “How do I know what is normal sexual behavior in my children?’’ or “What did I miss?” or “How did I not notice that something was wrong?” It is so hard for parents to know today what normal sexual behavior is when navigating through the sexualized media and the over sexualized public figures that all of our children seem to idolize. And if your child has acted sexually inappropriate, many parents struggle to understand this behavior and often blame themselves.

For most children they develop sexual behaviors in much the same ways they develop other non-sexual behaviors. In other words, it is through normal exploration, an information gathering process as they begin to discover their bodies, act out different roles and sexual behaviors. However, it should be noted that all exploration should be with same age children and should not be confused with sexual abuse. It is important to understand what is normal and what is not normal sexual behavior in children and adolescents. It is also important to talk with your child and let them know what acceptable behavior is and what is not acceptable.

What is typically seen in normal sexual behavior in children (under age 10)?

  • Looking and touching same aged children’s bodies (i.e. playing doctor)
  • Exploring gender roles (i.e. playing house)
  • Touching and rubbing of own genitals
  • Curiosity about sexual things and sexual talk
  • Curiosity about others’ bodies and genitals
  • Interest in how people make babies
  • Curiosity about urinating, defecating and other bodily functions
  • Talking/asking about their own genitals
  • Looking at others genitals

Adolescent Sexuality (ages 10 – 18)

Puberty brings increased interest in sex. This is the time that you will generally see more sexual behavior. In addition to the above behaviors of younger children you will also see:

  • Masturbation - almost all boys masturbate and many girls begin to masturbate at the onset of adolescence.
  • Voyeuristic behavior may occur in the form of viewing pornography or looking at others.
  • About half of all boys and a third of all girls have sexual contact with same aged peers in early adolescence. They may begin with kissing and touching and eventually evolve to sexual intercourse.
  • Increased interest in opposite sex or same sex peers.

What are behaviors that are of concern and require professional intervention?

  • Sexual knowledge beyond biological/developmental age
  • Public masturbation after being told it is not ok and consequenced
  • Continually talks about sex
  • Wants to play games with younger children such as doctor or house
  • Draws people having sexual intercourse
  • Asks people to take off their clothes
  • Touching of genitals of adults either through force or manipulation
  • Talking or acting in over-sexualized way
  • Touching of genitals of other children through force or manipulation
  • Extreme fear of having someone observing them undress
  • Hurting of one’s own genitals or rectum
  • Sexual behaviors or contact with animals
  • Forcing or manipulating others to touch their genitals
  • Forcing or manipulating others to show their genitals
  • Exposing their genitals after being told it is not ok and consequenced
  • Hates their own genitals
  • Hates their own gender/sex
  • Refuses to leave people alone when they are in the bathroom
  • Smearing of feces or urinating purposely in areas outside the bathroom
  • “Humping” the furniture, animals or other children
  • Forcing or manipulating others to have sex
  • Inability to stop themselves from engaging in sexual behaviors

If you see any of the above behaviors, you should seek out professional help. Or if you are experiencing any of the above behaviors or have feelings of wanting to do these behaviors, please contact a professional.


Johnson, Toni Cavanaugh, (1996). Understanding Children’s Sexual Behaviors: What’s Natural and Healthy: New Harbinger Publications: South Pasadena, CA.


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