Sexual development and behaviour in children

Last updated: 08 Nov 2021
Introduction

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

We’ve put together some information about the stages of typical sexual development and behaviour for different age groups. We’ve included examples of behaviour that is common and uncommon, and information about what to do if you are worried that a child is displaying problematic or harmful sexual behaviour.

Stages of child sexual development

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.

In general, typical sexual behaviour should be:

  • playful and curious, not aggressive or angry (National Sexual Violence Resource Centre, 2013)
  • displayed towards children of a similar age, stage of development and physical size, who know each other well (National Sexual Violence Resource Centre, 2013; National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), 2009)
  • voluntary and consensual (NCTSN, 2009).

Typical sexual behaviour should not cause physical or emotional harm to anybody involved (National Sexual Violence Resource Centre, 2013).

The tabs to the left contain some examples of typical sexual behaviour for different ages.

Healthy and unhealthy relationships

Learn how to recognise the signs that a young person is in an unhealthy relationship and what action you can take to help them.

Take a look

 

Under 5-years-old

Under 5-years-old

At this stage, it's common to notice natural exploratory behaviour emerging when children feel safe and comfortable. This includes:

  • having no inhibitions about nudity (National Sexual Violence Resource Centre, 2013; Virtual Lab School, 2021)
  • touching their own private parts (NCTSN, 2009; National Sexual Violence Resource Centre, 2013; South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence (SECASA), 2017; Virtual Lab School, 2021)
  • showing curiosity about other people's private parts or naked bodies (Healthy Children, 2019; NCTSN, 2009; National Sexual Violence Resource Centre, 2013; SECASA, 2017; Stop It Now, 2020; Virtual Lab School, 2021)
  • talking about bodily functions, using words like ‘poo’ and ‘wee’ (NCTSN, 2009, Virtual Lab School, 2021)
  • consensually role playing with their peers, exploring different relationships or roles such as ‘playing house’, ‘playing mummies and daddies’ or ‘playing doctor’ (Government of Canada, 2012; National Sexual Violence Resource Centre, 2013; Virtual Lab School, 2021).

Very young children can have erections, beginning from birth (Virtual Lab School, 2021).

It is uncommon for younger children to discuss specific sexual acts, use explicit sexual language or have adult-like sexual contact with other people (Stop It Now, 2007).

If you’re worried about a child’s sexual behaviour, you should act as soon as possible.

> Find out how to recognise and respond if a child is displaying problematic or harmful sexual behaviour

5- to 9-year-olds

5- to 9-year-olds

As children get a little older, it’s common to see them displaying behaviour like:

  • becoming more modest and asking for privacy (Government of Canada, 2012; SECASA, 2017; Virtual Lab School, 2021)
  • asking questions about sex and relationships, such as what sex is, where babies come from and same-sex relationships (Government of Canada, 2012; NCTSN, 2009; Stop It Now, 2007; Stop It Now, 2020; Virtual Lab School, 2021)
  • consensually exploring relationships with peers, for example mimicking adult relationships by holding hands with a ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’ or giving them a kiss on the cheek (NCTSN, 2009; SECASA, 2017; Stop It Now, 2007).

As children become more aware of social norms and ‘rules’ around sexualised behaviour, it’s common for them to test boundaries. This might include using ‘naughty’ words they’ve heard from other people (NCTSN, 2009).

It’s uncommon for children aged 5-8 to have adult-like sexual interactions, discuss specific sexual acts or self-stimulate in public (Stop It Now, 2007).

If you’re worried about a child’s sexual behaviour, you should act as soon as possible.

> Learn more about problematic or harmful sexual behaviour and what to do if a child is displaying it

9- to 13-year-olds

9- to 13-year-olds

During these ages, children begin to get more curious about sex and relationships. They may start to be attracted to other people. Examples of typical sexual behaviour during this stage are:

  • having or wanting to have a romantic relationship with peers (of the same or different gender) (National Sexual Violence Resource Centre, 2013; Virtual Lab School, 2021)
  • using sexual language, making jokes about sex or discussing sexual acts with peers (SECASA, 2017; Stop It Now, 2007; Virtual Lab School, 2021)
  • wanting more privacy (National Sexual Violence Resource Centre, 2013; NCTSN, 2009; SECASA, 2017; Virtual Lab School, 2021)
  • looking for information about sex in books, online or in the media (this might lead to accidentally finding sexual pictures or videos) (Government of Canada, 2012; National Sexual Violence Resource Centre, 2013; NCTSN, 2009; Stop It Now, 2007; Virtual Lab School, 2021)
  • masturbating in private (National Sexual Violence Resource Centre, 2013; NCTSN, 2009; SECASA, 2017; Stop It Now, 2007; Stop It Now, 2020; Virtual Lab School, 2021).

It’s uncommon for children in this age group to display sexual behaviour in a public place, or regularly display adult-like sexual behaviour such as having oral or genital contact or intercourse (Stop It Now, 2007; 2020).

If you’re worried about a child’s sexual behaviour, you should act as soon as possible.

> Discover how to identify problematic or harmful sexual behaviour and what you should do in response

13- to 17-year-olds

13- to 17-year-olds

During adolescence, sexual behaviour becomes more private and young people begin to explore their sexual identity. You might notice them:

  • experimenting sexually and consensually with the same age group (SECASA, 2017; Stop It Now, 2007; Stop It Now, 2020)
  • looking for information about sex and sexual relationships (Stop It Now, 2007; 2020)
  • masturbating in private (SECASA, 2017; Stop It Now, 2007; Stop It Now, 2020).

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.

It is uncommon for adolescents to masturbate in public, or display sexual attraction towards a much younger child (Stop It Now, 2007; 2020).

If you’re worried about a child’s sexual behaviour, you should act as soon as possible.

> Find out how to identify if a child is displaying problematic or harmful sexual behaviour

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

> Find out more about how your school or organisation can prevent HSB and peer-on-peer sexual abuse

References and resources

References and resources

References

Government of Canada (2012) When children act out sexually: a guide for parents and teachers. [Accessed 09/06/2021].

Healthy Children (2019) Sexual behaviours in young children: what’s normal, what’s not?. [Accessed 09/06/2021].

National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) (2009) Sexual development and behaviour in children: information for parents and caregivers (PDF). [Los Angeles]: NCTSN.

National Sexual Violence Resource Centre (2013) An overview of healthy childhood sexual development (PDF). [Alabama] National Children’s Advocacy Center.

South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence (SECASA) (2017) Age appropriate sexual behaviours in children and young people: information for carers, professionals and the general public (PDF). East Bentleigh: SECASA.

Stop It Now (2007) Do children sexually abuse other children? Preventing sexual abuse among children and youth (PDF). Massachusetts: Stop It Now.

Stop It Now (2020) Tip sheet: age-appropriate sexual behaviour. [Accessed 09/06/2021].

Virtual Lab School (2021) Understanding normative sexual development & behaviour. [Accessed 09/06/2021].

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

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.