Healthy sexual development of children and young people

Last updated: 17 Jul 2020
Introduction

It’s important that anyone who works with children and young people has a good understanding of how children develop sexually. This can help you recognise healthy sexual behaviours that are developmentally appropriate and identify if a child is displaying behaviour that is inappropriate or potentially harmful.

We’ve put together some information about the stages of healthy sexual development and behaviour for different age groups.

Stages of healthy sexual behaviour

Stages of healthy sexual behaviour

All children go through phases of sexual development. Just like every other part of growing up, some children mature sooner or later than others. For example, some children may have developmental delays whilst others may reach puberty early.

Below are some examples of age appropriate healthy sexual behaviour.

From 0- to 4-years-old

At this stage, you might notice sexual behaviour emerging for the first time through actions like:

  • enjoying being naked
  • kissing and hugging people they know well, for example friends and family members
  • touching or rubbing their own private parts as a comforting habit
  • showing curiosity about or attempting to touch the private parts of other people
  • being curious about the differences between boys and girls
  • talking about private body parts and their functions, using words like ‘willy’, ‘bum’, ‘poo’ and ‘wee’
  • role playing about different relationships, for example marriage.

5- to 9-year-olds

As children get a little older they become more conscious of sex and their own sexuality. This can be displayed by:

  • becoming more aware of the need for privacy
  • asking questions about sex and relationships, such as what sex is, where babies come from and same-sex relationships
  • kissing, hugging and holding hands with a boyfriend or girlfriend
  • using swear words or slang to talk about sex after hearing other people use them.

9- to 13-year-olds

During these ages, children begin to get more curious about sex. Examples of healthy sexual behaviour during this stage are:

  • having a boyfriend or girlfriend (of the same or different gender)
  • using sexual language as swear words or slang
  • wanting more privacy
  • looking for information about sex online (this might lead to accidentally finding sexual pictures or videos)
  • masturbating in private.

13- to 17-year-olds

During adolescence, sexual behaviour becomes more private with young people and they begin to explore their sexual identity. They might be:

  • forming longer-lasting sexual and non-sexual relationships with peers
  • using sexual language and talking about sex with friends
  • sharing obscenities and jokes that are within the cultural norm
  • experimenting sexually with the same age group
  • looking for sexual pictures or videos online.

The age of consent to engage in sexual activity in the UK is 16-years-old. However the law is there to protect children and young people from abuse or exploitation, rather than to prosecute under-16s who participate in mutually consenting sexual activity.

Schools, colleges and other education settings play an important role in teaching children and young people about healthy relationships.

> Take a look at our advice on promoting healthy relationships in an age appropriate way

Responding to inappropriate sexual behaviour

Responding to inappropriate sexual behaviour

If you are worried that a child is displaying harmful sexual behaviour, you should share your concerns.

  • Follow your organisational child protection procedures. Organisations that work with children and families must have safeguarding policies and procedures in place. 
  • Contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing help@nspcc.org.uk. Our experts will talk through your concerns with you and give you advice and support.
  • Contact your local child protection services. Their contact details can be found on the website for the local authority the child lives in.
  • Direct children and young people to Childline if they would benefit from confidential advice and support. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online or get information and advice on the Childline website.

If you think a child is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999.

> Get more information on how you can protect children from harmful sexual behaviour

Deciding if behaviours are healthy or age-appropriate

It’s not always easy to distinguish whether a behaviour is healthy or age-appropriate.

We’ve produced some guidance to help you identify the different types of sexualised behaviours a child or young person might be displaying and how to respond to it.

Although this is aimed at health practitioners, it will be helpful for anyone working or volunteering with children in other sectors too.

> View our guidance about harmful sexual behaviour

 

Related resources

Related resources

Promoting healthy relationships

Provides tips on how you can promote healthy relationships to children of different ages or children who have special educational needs or disabilities. Aimed at the education sector but is also helpful for other sectors.

> Access our tips and guidance

Relationships and sex education (RSE) resources

We’ve put together a range of resources you can use to teach young people about relationships, health and sex education. Includes resources for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

> View the resources

Harmful sexual behaviour

Provides information on recognising, responding and preventing harmful sexual behaviour in children and young people.

> Learn more about harmful sexual behaviour

Recognising and responding to abuse

Outlines best practice for recognising and responding to abuse or concerns. Includes information about consent, reporting concerns, whistleblowing, mandatory reporting and more.

> Find out more

Guidance on harmful sexual behaviour

Information to help you distinguish normal sexual behaviours from sexual behaviours that are developmentally inappropriate, problematic and harmful.

> Read about the different sexual behaviours

Podcast episodes

Listen to our short three-part series on responding to harmful sexual behaviour in schools, assessing sexualised behaviour and preventing harmful sexual behaviour.

> See all episodes

Training

We’ve produced two elearning courses for primary and secondary schools so you can develop your understanding of how to recognise and respond to concerns about harmful sexual behaviour.

> See the courses

Support for parents and carers

Many parents and carers may feel unsure about how to talk to their child or children about sex, sexuality and relationships. You can find advice to share with parents and carers on the NSPCC website.

> Read and share our advice for parents and carers

Support for children and young people

If a child or young person needs confidential help and advice direct them to Childline. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online.

Childline provides information and advice for young people about sex and relationships.

You can also order Childline posters and wallet cards.