Q. As a parent, how can I tell when a child’s normal curiosity about sex has crossed over into something inappropriate or unhealthy? My kids are at the age where they’re starting to ask questions. That’s fine in and of itself, but they’ve also been showing other signs of interest. For example, I walked in on them “playing doctor” the other day, and it was a pretty awkward experience for all of us.
A. Since you didn’t specify your children’s ages, it might be a good idea to begin by providing an overview of the stages by which a child’s interest in sexuality grows. (Keep in mind that what’s considered "age appropriate" is likely to change as our culture becomes increasingly sexualised.)
Ages 3-6: During this period a child displays curiosity about sexual organs (his parents’ and his own) and how babies are born. He’s also likely to start exploring his own genitals.
Ages 6-10: At this stage increased curiosity may lead to "playing doctor," sexual exploration with peers, and frank questions about sexual information gathered from conversations with peers. Interest in sexuality is usually casual and passing among kids of this age. It’s generally based on pure curiosity rather than physiological drive. Genital self-stimulation can occur and even become repetitive.
Ages 10-14: With the onset of puberty a child’s own sense of sexuality is forming along with an interest in the opposite sex. Much attention is given to anticipating and examining the physical changes that take place during this phase of development.
Ages 14-18: Relationships in general, and in particular with the opposite sex, begin to intensify during this period. Teens often experience a great deal of insecurity in connection with their sexual identity. This can be worsened by heavy peer influence.
Assuming your children are still relatively young – possibly in the 6-10 age range – we’d recommend that you refer to the following list of criteria to help tell the difference between normal curiosity and inappropriate sexual interest.
Normal Curious Behaviours
(Definition: Behaviour marked by a desire to investigate and learn; inquisitive interest.)
- Kids want to learn what they don’t know.
- They approach the subject with innocence and a vague sense that it’s somewhat awkward and funny.
- Interest in the topic is non-sexual in intent.
- Exploration includes no physiological arousal (at least not intentionally).
- Children are satisfied with the information and awareness they gain.
- Participants in discussion or exploration are mutually innocent.
- The impact of the episode is neutral.
Inappropriate Sexual Behaviours
(Definition: Behaviour that is not suitable, fitting, or compatible with the child’s age and stage of development.)
- Children "know" something sexually (whether accurately or not) and attempt to act it out.
- Children sexually act out something that’s been previously experienced (whether physically, visually, or as a result of stress or trauma).
- There is a lack of innocence on the part of at least one of the participants.
- There is intentionality or intrusiveness on the part of at least one of the participants.
- The experience is self-gratifying for at least one of the participants.
- This gratification arises out of sexual arousal or a feeling of gaining power or control over the other person.
- The episode is cloaked in secrecy and lies.
- One participant is manipulative. The other feels manipulated.
- The episode is characterised by clear boundary violations (resistance is overpowered).
- The impact of the episode is potentially negative for one or both of the participants.
It’s important to add that family-system dynamics can have a big effect on the way a child’s interest in sexual matters plays out over time. It’s not hard to see why. A healthy family talks about sexuality in age-appropriate ways at age-appropriate times. This enables children to "discover" sex and human anatomy through innocent exploration.
But in an unhealthy family system – especially in a family where sex is regarded as "bad" or "shameful" – well-intentioned questions tend to get suppressed. This can drive kids to become involved in inappropriate sexual behaviour in an attempt to gain information on their own. Other unhealthy family-system dynamics can also lead to inappropriate experimentation:
- Issues in the parents’ marital relationship (whether acknowledged or denied).
- A blended family.
- Continual unresolved stress.
- Limited support available to family members.
- Limited or no boundaries regarding the use of the internet and technology.
- A child exposed (even if by accident) to sexual experiences, images, or content.