Sexual behavior of a child
Sexuality is an important area of development throughout life. For the child, it involves, among other things, curiosity about the subject, getting to know their own body, and playing games with a sexual tone. Sometimes a child’s sexual behavior raises concerns in adults, but often the behavior is explained by reasons other than abuse.
Children are naturally interested in the world around them, and that interest also extends to sexuality. The sexuality of young children is therefore an open and curious adoption of new things, such as wondering about one’s own body and another person’s body, getting to know the experience of touching and pleasure, and practicing the regulation of strong emotions. It is also about learning manners, social rules, and one’s own rights. Normal sexual development can include a wide range of curious behaviors, such as self-examination and touching, games of exploration with others of the same age, and seeking body contact with others. Children can also speak out and ask a wide range of questions about sexuality.
Based on sexual behavior, no conclusions can be drawn about sexual abuse. As long as a child’s sexual behavior is cheerful and curious, in principle, there is no reason to worry about it. It is a parent’s job to gradually guide the child to where and how to express their sexuality.
A child’s sexual behavior raises concerns, if it lacks joy and spontaneity and becomes compulsive and potentially violent. In this case, the behavior is also so repetitive that it takes up a large part of the child’s day and interferes with the child’s other activities. In this case, despite guidance, the child is also unable to stop their behavior or returns to their activities shortly after guidance. Repeated imitation of adult-like sexual behaviors, such as acts related to oral sex, sexual intercourse or the like, are clearly less common in a child than other forms of sexual behavior, such as masturbation. However, it is worth remembering that most of the children who behave in this way have not been sexually abused, but the behavior is due to other, more likely, factors.
Sexual development is a life-long process and a very important aspect of a child’s maturing towards adulthood. According to a model of sexual development that occurs in stages, human sexual development occurs step by step and the development is combined with physical, mental, social, intellectual, and emotional development. Knowledge is absorbed and skills learned in every development stage in order to build one’s sexuality towards adulthood. The starting point for development are the feelings related to the sexuality and independence of the child and adolescent. The stages do not often follow one after the other in any specific order, but a person may leap ahead or return to a previous stage, if they feel they are not yet ready to proceed.
As a natural part, a child’s normal development includes curiosity about sexuality, as well as sexually-colored games, which are most common in children under school age. Self-touching and masturbation are also quite common in children, and according to some estimates, these occur in at least one fifth of children under school age in the presence of adults. As a child grows up and adopts rules of acceptable behavior, such behavior in front of others grows less and the child engages in the behavior more on their own in privacy. According to a survey conducted in daycare facilities in Finland, nearly half of the children “play doctors” at times which involves showing their genitals to others. Other types of explorative playing may also include themes of sexuality. Children may play, for example, weddings or childbirth, or imitate the style of their celebrity idols.
A child’s sexual behavior may also arise or increase in connection with life crises, such as parents getting divorced, a loved one dying, or domestic violence. This has been explained, for example, by the fact that children react to crises with anxiety and this can manifest itself as increased self-touching or seeking physical intimacy. Self-touching and masturbation naturally make the child feel content, and the child may have learned to comfort themselves and decrease their anxiety in this manner. This may occur most commonly, for example, when going to bed.
The culture and norms of the family and society also shape a child’s behavior in terms of sexuality. In addition, these affect how a child’s sexual behavior is assessed. In Finland, nudity is generally viewed more permissively than in many other countries, especially when it comes to children. When comparing American and Northern European research, it can be seen that the European, more open attitude toward nudity and sexuality is also reflected in children's behavior, so that European children portray more sexual behavior in their playing compared to American children of the same age.
Children are often taught early on not to show any sexual behavior in front of others. However, the expression of a child’s sexuality also varies significantly within a country, i.e. there are no clear common cultural “norms”; the child’s behavior is defined by the culture of the child’s family in addition to society. Sometimes, for example, in reconstituted families, different viewpoints on sexuality and nudity can cause confusion. Also the increasing multiculturalism brings along even greater variation in this.
Different families have very varied practices regarding, for example, what names are used for the genital organs (and whether they can be discussed in the first place), whether nudity, bathing and sleeping together in the same space with the family is acceptable, and in what way and to what extent can other family members be touched, for example, when hugging. Parents with a more unreserved and open attitude towards sleeping and bathing together and nudity among the family also observe more sexual behavior in their children aged 2 to 12, based on research.
Studies have also looked at how adults themselves remember playing games with a sexual tone in their own childhood. It has been found that a large proportion of adults remember playing sexually-colored games, which have included, for example, touching the genital area. However, children are aware early on that sexuality and related games are private and will soon learn to keep such games a secret from adults. So adults will only observe a part of the sexual behavior of children.
According to studies, gender affects to some extent the perceptions of what is considered as normal sexual behavior. There is evidence that women are inclined to see sexual behavior as more unusual than men. It has also been found that girls of kindergarten age modify their behavior more than boys of the same age, depending on location and expectations. Girls have more visible sexual behavior at home than in kindergarten, while boys’ behavior does not change as markedly depending on the environment they are in.