August/ September 2000 - Volume 3 - Issue 6
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:
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:
© 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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