Sexual development of children

​In brief

  • Sexual growth is part of a child's normal development and includes curiosity and sexual play.
  • Exploring one's own body and touching oneself is part of normal sexual development.
  • No conclusions regarding sexual abuse should be drawn on the basis of sexual behaviour
  • As long as the child's sexual behaviour is characterised by joy and curiosity, as a general rule it does not give reason for concern. Parents should, little by little, teach their children about where and how to express their sexuality.
  • If the child's sexual behaviour lacks joy and spontaneity and turns compulsive and violent, parents should be concerned. Adult-like sexual behaviour, such as acts related to oral sex or intercourse or an attempt to engage in such acts, are clearly more rare in children than other forms of sexual behaviour, such as masturbation. Nevertheless, most children behaving in such a way have not been sexually abused and their behaviour is caused by other issues.

Sexual growth is part of a child's development
Sexual growth and development begins already in early childhood, as part of the process of maturing into adulthood. According to the stage model of sexual development, human sexual development occurs by advancing from one stage to another, combining physical, psychological, social, intellectual and emotional development. At each stage, the child acquires knowledge and learns skills for sexual development into adulthood. The development is based on the child's and adolescent's feelings related to sexuality and gaining of independence. Often the stages of development do not follow each other sequentially; instead, the child might skip some stages or return back to lower stages if not yet ready to proceed.
Sexual growth is part of a child's normal development. Such growth involves curiosity towards sexuality and sexual play, which are most common in preschool children. Touching oneself and masturbation are also quite common among children. According to some estimates, at least a fifth of preschool children engage in such behaviours in front of adults. A study conducted in day care centres in Finland found that nearly a half of children "play doctor", which involves showing one's genitals to others.
Sexual behaviour in children might surface or increase in connection with other life crises, such as the divorce of parents, death of a close family member or violence in the family. This has been explained by children reacting to crises with anxiety, which in turn might manifest itself as increasingly touching oneself or seeking physical proximity. Touching oneself and masturbation are a natural source of pleasure for the child and help him or her to calm down. This behaviour might be most common for example when going to sleep.
Sexuality is connected to culture, religion and family norms
The culture and norms within the family and society also shape the child's behaviour when it comes to sexuality. Finnish culture is generally more tolerant towards nudity, and the nudity of children in particular, than many other countries. When comparing American and Northern European studies, it can be noted that the more open European attitude towards nudity and sexuality is also reflected in the children's behaviour: European children show more sexual behaviour in their play than American children of the same age.
From early on, children are taught not to engage in sexual behaviours in front of others. However, children's interest in sexuality also varies significantly within countries. This means there are no clear common cultural "norms", but the children's behaviour is influenced by the families' own culture in addition to the society's norms. For example in blended families, the various attitudes towards sexuality and nudity can sometimes be a source of confusion. Increasing multiculturality also brings with it a greater variation in family cultures.

Families have very different practices with respect to what to call the genitals (and whether they can be talked about at all), whether nudity, bathing and sleeping in the same bed is acceptable in the family, and in what way and how much other family members are touched (for example by hugging). According to studies, parents who have a more open attitude towards sleeping in the same bed, bathing together and nudity within the family, see more sexual behaviour in their children aged between 2 and 12.

Adults see only a part of children's sexual behaviours

Studies have also looked into how adults remember their own sexual play in childhood. It has been discovered that a large share of adults remember having engaged in sexual play that involved the touching of genitals, for example. Children become conscious of the private nature of sexuality and the related play at an early age and learn to keep their play secret from adults. Adults therefore notice only a part of their children's sexual behaviour.

According to studies, conceptions of normal sexual behaviour are somewhat influenced by gender. Women tend to see sexual behaviour as more unusual than men. It has also been noted that girls attending day care centres tend to adjust their behaviour in accordance with the place and its expectations more than boys of the same age. While girls exhibit more visible sexual behaviour at home than in day care centres, boys' behaviour is not as clearly dependent on the environment.

See also ”Overly sexualised behaviour in children

More useful information on sexual development is available from the website of Väestöliitto, the Family Federation of Finland (in Finnish).