Understanding Sexual Behavior in Young Children

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Most kids discover their penis or vulva at a similar stage of early development. They might "play with their privates" as a means of self-discovery or because it feels good. Sometimes, a child might show an interest in looking at other people's genitals, too. This behavior often begins around age 2 and tends to decrease in both boys and girls after age 5.

Though a young child's interest in their own or another person's genitals is a normal part of sexual development, it might be concerning to family members or friends. In a public setting, a child's sexual behavior, however innocent, can create embarrassing moments for a childcare provider, a parent, or even other children. Certain behaviors can also be a red flag of stress or possible abuse.

Here are guidelines to what's normal when it comes to early sexual development and tips for helping children understand what is appropriate touching and what's not.

What's Normal

Young children commonly engage in a variety of normal behaviors involving exploring their own or their peers' private parts. Babies will often touch their own penis or vulva during diaper changes as a way of discovering their own body parts, just as they would grab their toes.

By around preschool age, children might start to show more curiosity about private parts, what makes them different than other parts of our bodies, and how boys' and girls' bodies differ. From ages 2 to 6, the following are all common early sexual behaviors. Normally developing children engage in these behaviors infrequently and can easily be distracted away from doing them:

  • Touching their genitals at home or in public
  • Masturbating at home or in public
  • Looking at or touching a new sibling's genitals
  • Showing their genitals to peers
  • Sitting or standing too close to others
  • Trying to look at other people who are naked

Sometimes, normally developing children engage in less common or uncommon early sexual behaviors. While not necessarily cause for alarm, these behaviors might warrant a discussion with a pediatrician to explore potential causes, like a new sibling or exposure to nudity at home. These less typical behaviors include:

  • Rubbing their body against others
  • Trying to kiss others using their tongue
  • Mimicking of sexual acts or intercourse
  • Touching an adult's genitals
  • Inserting objects in their own genitals
  • Engaging in any sexual behavior more than occasionally

Young children may occasionally touch themselves, show their genitals to peers, or try to look at other people's private parts as part of a normal phase in early sexual development.

How to React

The appropriate reaction to kids playing with their privates or showing interest in others' genitals depends on where these behaviors occur and how persistent they are. Most child experts caution that there is a difference between innocent self-discovery and sexual behavior that bothers others or signals your own child's distress.

Private vs. Public

When your child explores their own body in the privacy of your home, try to resist scolding them. They are likely just doing what feels natural to them and not behaving in a way that adults would view as sexual. When you realize your child is touching themselves, exposing themselves, or showing interest in other people's nude bodies, that may be a cue that it's time to talk with them about the name and basic functions of sexual organs.

When talking to young children about their privates, it's best to take a matter-of-fact tone and use anatomically correct terms, like penis/testicles, vagina/vulva, and breasts. Made-up names can communicate to kids that there's something shameful about these body parts. Giving terminology to genitalia builds children's vocabulary for future discussions and helps develop a bond of trust.

The approach may make kids more comfortable to come to you with questions like how babies are made. Even if these questions come before you were planning to talk to your child about sex, it's a good idea to answer them truthfully, with as little or as much detail as you think the individual child is ready to understand.

Almost certainly, parents won't want their child playing with or examining their own private parts in a public setting. Discourage the behavior swiftly, but without passing judgment or making a child feel that they are "bad." Young children may also interpret parents' responses of shame or embarrassment as positive reactions, which can encourage them to keep doing the very behaviors you are trying to discourage.

Even young kids can understand that certain things should not be done in public, whether it's yelling in church or taking their penis out of their pants at the playground. Explain that a person's private parts are just that—private—and that showing them to others can make people uncomfortable.

Appropriate vs. Inappropriate Touching

Some kids' early sexual behavior might include curiosity about other people's genitals. Experts say that preschool age is about the right time to explain the difference between appropriate touching—like high-fives, handshakes, and mutual hugs—and inappropriate touching.

Your child may swat a friend's backside, tickle them, or even lean in for a sudden embrace in a way that makes a peer feel uncomfortable. A good rule to reinforce with kids is that they should ask another person before touching or hugging them. You should also teach them that it's not appropriate to touch anyone else's body parts that a bathing suit might cover, or in any way that a friend resists through words (like "stop" or "no") or actions (like pulling away).

Equally important is explaining to young children what it means to have another person touch them in an inappropriate way. As early as possible, children should be taught to tell you immediately if a peer or grown-up touches their private parts or any body part in a way that hurts them or makes them feel scared or just "yucky." You should also let them know it's OK to not want to hug or kiss someone if they don't want to—even a grandparent or favorite teacher. Teach them to hold up a hand for a high-five or fist bump instead.

Signs of Sexual Abuse

Sometimes, little kids may show more sexual behavior due to certain new circumstances or exposures at home. A new baby sibling whose genitals are laid bare during diaper changes or a breastfeeding parent who is suddenly exposed more than usual can trigger kids to be more curious about their own or others' private parts. Young children who live in households where adults are frequently nude or engage in sexual activities openly are also more likely to engage in sexualized play.

It's important to also understand that certain early sexual behaviors can be a red flag that a child is being abused. About 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys experience sexual abuse at some point during their childhoods. The following sexual behaviors in young children are rarely normal, and experts recommend that parents contact their child's pediatrician, their local child protective services division, or the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline (800-656-HOPE) if kids exhibit them:

  • Sexual behavior between children who are 4 or more years apart in age
  • Sexual behavior that causes a child emotional distress or pain
  • Sexual behaviors that are highly aggressive in nature
  • Coercive sexual behavior (i.e., a child tries to force another child to do something or feels forced to do something)
  • Anger from a child when a parent or caregiver asks them to stop a sexual behavior

If you think your own or someone else's child is being abused, contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE. You will be connected with experts in your area who can guide you about whether to seek professional input or immediate help.

A Word From Verywell

Curiosity about genitalia is a perfectly normal part of early sexual development. When little kids touch their own genitals or show an interest in looking at other people's private parts, they are most likely doing what young children are born to do: learning about themselves and the world around them.

Sometimes, however, persistent or overt sexual behavior can be a sign that a child has seen or experienced something confusing or upsetting. For this reason, talking to young children about their private parts and inappropriate touching is key to keeping kids safe from an early age. The more comfortable kids are with talking frankly about human sexuality, the more likely they will be to come to you with problems or questions as they grow.

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  2. Rady Children's Hospital of San Diego. Understanding Early Sexual Development. Reviewed October 2014.

  3. C.S. Mott Children's Hospital. Mott Poll Report: Parenting to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse. March 16, 2020.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing Children's Sexual Abuse. Updated March 20, 2020.