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August/ September 2000  -  Volume 3  -  Issue 6


SEXUAL BEHAVIOR IN CHILDREN
What's Normal?
Provided by the Mayo Clinic

Is it normal for a 5-year-old to fondle his or her genitals? Should you be concerned if a child mimics an adult sexual behavior, such as passionately kissing a playmate? Which behaviors are normal, and which might indicate a problem or even suggest possible sexual abuse?

Within reason, most sexual behaviors in young children — masturbation, flashing underwear in public, "playing doctor" — are perfectly normal and should not cause parents alarm or undue embarrassment. That reassurance comes from a new Mayo Clinic study on sexual behavior in children, published in the April 1998 issue of the journal Pediatrics.

The researchers, led by Mayo psychologist William N. Friedrich, Ph.D., gathered data from the mothers of more than 1,000 ethnically diverse children ages 2 to 12 from Minnesota and Los Angeles. The mothers reported on types and frequencies of sexual behaviors they observed in their children. The study didn't include children who had been abused sexually.

"In the study, we found that these children who had not been sexually abused exhibited a broad range of sexual behaviors in varying frequencies. And while it's true that children who have been abused act out sexually, so do children who have not,"

Friedrich says. "A 5-year-old who touches his genitals is just doing what little kids do as a part of their development — explore their bodies and do what feels good. Two-thirds of boys that age in the study were reported to have exhibited self-stimulation."

The study found that younger children were more likely to exhibit sexual behaviors than older children. In children 5 and under, the most frequent behaviors included self-stimulation, exhibitionism and behaviors relating to personal boundaries (standing too close, rubbing up against a playmate). Other common behaviors included touching their mothers' or other women's breasts and voyeurism.

"Children who have younger siblings who are being breastfed often grab at women's breasts. And natural curiosity would explain why children want to see naked bodies," explains Friedrich.

The researchers also found that after age 5, sexual behavior in children tends to drop off considerably, resurfacing most commonly at age 11 for girls and age 12 for boys.

"Younger children tend to be less inhibited than older children," Friedrich says. "But usually by kindergarten, children are becoming socialized and learning what is appropriate behavior and what is not. That might explain why sexual behavior in children drops off at about age 6 and usually doesn't resurface until they are teenagers."

The study also showed that:

  • Boys and girls of the same age — regardless of ethnicity or socioeconomic status — tend to exhibit similar sexual behaviors.
  • There is a direct relationship between parent's attitudes toward sexuality and a child's behavior. If the mother reported being relaxed about nudity in the home, chances were the child was observed to be relaxed about nudity.
  • No conclusions could be drawn regarding whether hours spent in a group child care settings influence sexual behavior. The researchers speculate that it's possible more sexual behavior might be exhibited in childcare settings, where children from diverse backgrounds have more chances to interact.
  • Sexual behavior was significantly related to family violence and life stress.
  • And, although sexual behavior is normal, excessive sexual behavior may suggest other behavioral problems - including sexual abuse.

 

Friedrich and his team did a follow-up study on sexual behavior in sexually abused children. Using the same questionnaire employed in the first study, the researchers polled mothers of more than 600 sexually abused children from 14 sites across the United States. Findings from that study have yet to be published, but Friedrich shared some early analysis of the data.

"Sexually abused children appear to exhibit more types of sexual behavior and at a much, much greater frequency than children who are not abused." Friedrich says. "Sexually abused children may be overly preoccupied with sex or exhibit unusual sexual behaviors."

The researchers are hopeful that the information derived from these studies will help health care providers and parents identify children's sexual behavior that should be addressed. If you're concerned about your child's sexual behavior, talk to a pediatrician or other health care professional.

What parents can do

When a child touches his or her genitals in public or kisses another child, it can be embarrassing for the parents. Oasis asked William N. Friedrich, Ph.D., a Mayo Clinic child psychologist, for some advice on what parents can do when young children behave sexually. His advice:

  • Set rules — If your child is masturbating in public, remind him or her that it's something to be done in private — not in public. Calmly ask the child to stop the activity and divert his or her attention to something else. Be firm but non-threatening.  The same approach is appropriate if you observe your child "playing doctor" with another child. Most children stop sexual behaviors once they learn what is appropriate and what isn't.
  • Think like a child — Children don't think like adults; they may not be aware that what they're doing is inappropriate or sexual in nature. What you might think of as harassment — a child kissing or laying on top of a playmate — to the children may be nothing more than innocent fun. Try to separate your own feelings about sexuality from the child's.
  • Consider the context — If you're concerned about a child's sexual behavior, stop and think. Is the activity appropriate for a child that age? Where does the behavior occur? Is it something the child does occasionally or frequently? Is the behavior in the normal range or is it particularly adult-like or unusual? Typically, children who are sexually abused are preoccupied with sex or consistently display knowledge or behaviors beyond their developmental age.
  • Remember children will vary — Siblings will vary in their sexual behaviors. Many parents wonder if it's OK to bathe children of different ages and genders together, and at what age does it become inappropriate. "My answer is that it depends on the maturity and personality of the individual children," Dr. Friedrich says. "If a child is overly curious about bodies, maybe a solo bath would be better. If an older child begins to express modesty, be respectful of his or her need for privacy."
  • Talk to your children — Dialogue is key. Sexual behavior — a natural part of life — should not be a subject of embarrassment or taboo for parents or children. If you have any questions or concerns about your child's sexual behavior, talk to a trusted health professional.

2000 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission from the Mayo Clinic website at: http://www.mayoclinic.org . Original article published: 04/24/98


. . . More from Our August/September 2000 Newsletter  - Volume 3, Issue 6



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