How to Address Child Sexual Behavior Problems

Talk to your child sexualized behavior.
Thanasis Zovoilis / Moment / Getty Images

If your child is exhibiting sexual behavior, it’s appropriate to be concerned. That said, you don’t necessarily need to panic. Develop a plan to address the behavior and determine whether you’ll need to seek professional help.

The first step is to make sure that you understand sexual development. While it can be normal for a 3-year-old to reach down their pants in front of other people, it’s not normal for a 13-year-old to exhibit the same behavior.

Here's what parents should know about age-appropriate sexual development, and what to do if you are concerned about your child's behavior.

Teach Appropriate Behavior

Young children don’t understand the concepts of modesty and boundaries unless they are taught. Therefore, it’s important for caregivers to teach them which behaviors are appropriate and which are not.

Young children need to be taught about their bodies as well as issues surrounding safe touch. They should also be given information about how to respond if someone tries to touch them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable.

Kids need to be given information that is appropriate for their age. For example, when a 5-year-old asks where babies come from, you don't need to give them all the details. Instead, you might say something like, "Babies grow in the uterus, which is inside a mother's belly."

Older children can be given more facts about sex and puberty as they mature. It’s important to develop and maintain an open line of communication to help young people feel comfortable coming to you with their questions and asking for help when necessary.

It's also a good idea to establish household rules that teach children appropriate boundaries. For example, you could have a rule like, “Knock on closed doors and wait for a response before entering,” or “One person in the bathroom at a time.”

Respond to Inappropriate Sexual Behavior

When inappropriate sexual behaviors occur, it’s important to respond in a non-shaming way. To start, you'll need to teach them the difference between private and public behavior. For example, if your 4-year-old reaches into their pants while you’re in the grocery store, remind them that it's not something to do in public.

Respond calmly and avoid using words that could shame your child, such as “nasty” or “naughty.” If your child feels shame, they may feel like they shouldn’t talk to you if they have questions about sex or their body.

Reasons for Sexualized Behavior

A child could be exhibiting inappropriate sexualized behavior for many reasons. Sometimes kids exhibit sexualized behavior simply because they don’t understand that it’s not appropriate. However, it can also be a sign of something more serious.

Children who are exposed to sexual content are more likely to exhibit sexualized behavior. Sexualized behaviors are sometimes a warning sign that a child has been sexually abused.

Not all sexualized behavior is caused by sexual abuse. Children who are exposed to media (like TV shows and movies) that aren’t developmentally appropriate for them may begin to act out the sexualized content they see.

Kids can also be exposed to graphic images online. Be sure to teach your children about the Internet and online safety. If they are too young to understand how to keep themselves safe on the Internet, they are too young to use devices that connect to the web.

Kids can also be exposed to sexual content by their peers. Older kids on the bus might tell inappropriate jokes or younger children might overhear peers discussing graphic material they’ve witnessed.

Warning Signs of a Serious Problem

Sexualized behavior sometimes signals a more serious problem and might require professional intervention. Potential warning signs include:

  • Sexualized behavior that is not developmentally appropriate. For example, a 12-year-old walking around the house naked.
  • Coercive sexualized behavior. It is never appropriate for sexualized behavior to be coercive, such as a child trying to convince another child to engage in sexual activity by making threats or using aggression.
  • Obsessive sexualized behavior. It's a red flag if a child focuses a lot of time and energy on sexualized behavior, such as being intent on trying to watch a sibling undress.
  • Behavior that doesn’t respond to redirection. If you have appropriately addressed a child's sexualized behavior but it continues, it should be a cause for concern.
  • Sexualized behavior that interferes with a child’s life. It's also a problem if a child's behavior interferes with friendships or school (for example, a child not being allowed back at a friend’s house after trying to pull the friend’s pants or being pulled out of class repeatedly).
  • Sexualized behavior that shows mature knowledge of sex. It’s a red flag when children have a mature knowledge of sexual behavior and they act on that knowledge. For example, a 4-year-old shouldn’t be imitating adult sexual activity and an 8-year-old shouldn’t be attempting to access pornography.

Seek professional help if you’re concerned about your child’s sexualized behavior. Talk to your pediatrician or mental health professional. They can conduct an assessment and make treatment recommendations to help your child.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Sexual Violence Resource Center. An overview of healthy childhood sexual development.

  2. Vrolijk-Bosschaart TF, Brilleslijper-Kater SN, Verlinden E, et al. A descriptive mixed-methods analysis of sexual behavior and knowledge in very young children assessed for sexual abuse: The ASAC Study. Front Psychol. 2018;9:2716. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02716

  3. Vrolijk-Bosschaart TF, Brilleslijper-Kater SN, Benninga MA, Lindauer RJL, Teeuw AH. Clinical practice: Recognizing child sexual abuse—what makes it so difficult?. Eur J Pediatr. 2018;177(9):1343-1350. doi:10.1007/s00431-018-3193-z

Additional Reading

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.