1. Toddlers
  2. Development
  3. Sexual development

When to be concerned about childhood sexual behaviour

0-8 years

Children often explore their own bodies and the bodies of others by looking or touching. That’s all normal. But some childhood sexual behaviour can be a cause for concern. It’s good to know when to seek advice.

Concerning sexual behaviour in childhood

Some sexual behaviour and sex play isn’t typical and might be cause for concern.

If a child behaves in the following ways often and keeps doing these things even when you ask him to stop, it’s a good idea to seek professional advice. A GP or child and family health nurse is a good place to start. They can refer you to an appropriate health professional with experience in this area.

Toddlers
Concerning sexual behaviour in toddlers includes:

  • preferring masturbation to other activities, and not stopping when asked to
  • forcing another child to engage in sexual play
  • playing with dolls in a sexual way – for example, ‘humping’ a teddy bear
  • touching the private parts of unfamiliar adults
  • persistently peeping at other people’s toileting or nudity.

Preschoolers
Concerning sexual behaviour in preschoolers includes:

  • persistently touching or rubbing genitals in public and not responding to distraction
  • persistently using coarse sexual language words, even when they’ve been told not to use them
  • touching other children aggressively.

School-age
Concerning sexual behaviour in school-age children includes:

  • persistently rubbing or touching genitals in public
  • persistently using coarse sexual language
  • wanting to play sex games with much older or younger children
  • repeatedly wanting to touch private parts of other children
  • repeatedly peeping at other people’s sexual activity, toileting or nudity.

Very concerning sexual behaviour

Some sexual behaviour and sex play isn’t typical and might be a sign of serious problems.

The following kinds of childhood sexual behaviour are harmful and not OK.

A child behaving in these ways needs immediate professional help. Contact a GP or child and family health nurse immediately if you see your child or another child doing any of these things. The GP can refer you to an appropriate health professional with experience in this area.

Toddlers
Very concerning sexual behaviour in toddlers includes a child:

  • persistently touching or rubbing herself, which leads to her being left out of normal childhood activities
  • simulating sex with other children, with or without clothes on
  • persistently talking, playing or doing art with sexual themes
  • forcing an object into her own, or someone else’s, anus or vagina.

Preschoolers
Very concerning sexual behaviour in preschoolers includes a child:

  • persistently touching or rubbing himself in private or public, and not wanting to do other activities
  • touching or rubbing other children’s genitals
  • forcing other children to play sexual games
  • knowing more about sex than he should for his age
  • persistently talking about sex and sexual acts
  • touching adults’ genital areas.

School-age
Very concerning sexual behaviour in school-age children includes a child:

  • persistently touching or rubbing herself in private or public and not wanting to do other activities
  • rubbing other people’s genitals
  • forcing other children to play sexual games
  • knowing more about sex than she should for her age
  • persistently talking about sex and sexual acts
  • moving another child to a secluded spot like a cupboard, toilet, shed or bushes for the purpose of sexual play.
Seek help if you’re concerned about a child’s sexual behaviour. Many things can be part of concerning behaviour, from being bored and finding it hard to manage emotions, to seeing sexually explicit material on the internet, or experiencing sexual abuse. Professional advice can help you understand what’s happening and what you can do about it.

Where to get help for concerning childhood sexual behaviour

Many organisations can help if you’re concerned about a child’s sexual behaviour:

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Last updated or reviewed
08-12-2015

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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