It is normal for children to sexual development during childhood to explore their sexuality but sometimes it is hard to figure out what is healthy sexual behaviour at each age. Sex may be something a person wants; it may not be. Some want it and are ready for it earlier than others; some never feel the need or urge for that experience and that’s perfectly fine. Everyone develops physically, mentally and socially at different rates, and this means that people want to try different things at different ages. Sexual development during childhood is normal.
There are no set ages where people must try new sexual acts or exhibit specific behaviours. No one needs to check off kissing, touching or sex by certain ages. So, any ages mentioned here are not markers for what should happen by that age, they are just used to show common (and not problematic) sexual behaviours in children of that age. These ages can be useful for parents/guardians to understand what behaviour is healthy and when they should have particular discussions about sex with their kids.
Sexual exploration usually begins with an interest in their own body, which includes touching and exposing their genitals. This can also involve masturbation, which starts off as a relaxing habit for children. This can start when a child 0 to 4 years old. These behaviours are not excessive and are motivated by curiosity about their bodies.
Nudity is very common in this age group and kids may be interested in the nudity of others, but this will usually be in specific contexts such as baths and will be with other children or with family members they know well. When kids are young, it is hard for them to understand what’s appropriate so it’s important parents/guardians have conversations about this kind of stuff. Learning that there are some areas of our body that people keep covered and private will one of the early talks about sexual behaviour that a parent/guardian has. It can help introduce the topic of privacy which will be something that they will feel the need for more as they grow up.
By the ages of 5 to 9, kids will be able to grasp what privacy is, particularly in the context of their bodies and may feel shy about undressing. They may also begin to explore touching their peers in forms of kissing, hugging and holding hands.
Children won’t be associating actions with sexuality because they haven’t learnt what that is yet. They should then gain an understanding of the difference between good touch and bad touch. This will help them in learning to identify touches that they are comfortable with. While some kids are fine with affection, others are not, so making sure they don’t have to hug relatives or friends that they don’t want to is a good way for them to know that they can have boundaries, and those boundaries will be respected. It is important for them to understand that not everyone is comfortable with touches that you are comfortable with, which sets up a foundation for talking about and respecting consent.
They will also start asking questions at a young age and in this age group, questions may skew towards private body parts. Part of what they should be learning is the proper names for anatomy (specifically genitals) when they are young and can them be associated with keeping those body parts private. This is also when kids have access and will be able to use technology. This can include using the internet, take pictures of their life, and be able to play games online. This means that they may be exposed to pornography at this age.
Children can be influenced by what they see in media, and they need to know that the imagery of sex is not always accurate. An ongoing conversation that needs to be had with kids is reinforcing that people of all body shapes, sexualities, gender identities and ethnicities can have sex (if they want to) and it doesn’t have to look like how they would see online (whether it’s in a movie, TV show or in porn). Most children will not come across porn at this age, but it is good to remember that you’ll never know when or how a kid can be exposed to sexual imagery.
Kids will start telling sexual jokes from 9 to 12 years old. This is because they will have a better understanding of what “dirty” words mean. There will be a reinforced need for privacy, particularly when self-touching. They will begin to show more interest in talking about sexual things with their peers. When they hit pre-adolescence and adolescence, crushes can turn to relationships and there are new types of intimacy like kissing and flirting that are explored.
When children hit their teenage years, this is when their sexual behaviour becomes directed to their peers and they begin to think about and be intimate with others. This time of exploration coincides with puberty, so there are considerable physical development and the accompanying influx of hormones.
It is at the ages of 13 to 18 when teenagers begin to express their desire to explore sexuality with others. This will mean that talks about consent need to include legal information. Different countries have different laws regarding the age of consent so if you have children or work with children, make sure to look up these laws. For parents/guardians, knowing these laws can help shape when you choose to have certain conversations about sex.
Teenagers should be reminded that they should never do anything that they don’t feel comfortable with and that they must ask a sexual partner what they are comfortable with. They should know that sexual acts that are violent, coercive, aggressive or forceful are not okay and they should seek help if they ever feel unsafe in a situation like that.
It’s at these ages where they will need to learn about safe sex and possible consequences of sex. This would cover protection (i.e. barrier methods), contraception, STIs, pregnancy. This may be something that is covered at school, but a parent can also help supplement that learning, and make sure their child knows where to go to access sexual healthcare and advice from health professionals on these topics.
There is no “normal” course of sexual exploration that every child will through so it can be hard as a parent/guardian to know what to expect at what age. Having simple conversations about exploring sexuality at an early age can help children gain an understanding of what kind of behaviour is appropriate at their age. Curiosity should be encouraged, however when it comes to matters of sexuality, kids need to be aware that there are some boundaries with other people, and they should establish their own boundaries.
These talks will evolve over time, touching others and being touched by others talk will change from when a child is 5 to when your child is 13. Just like learning about consent starts when a kid is young and incorporates sexual acts as they get older. If you are parent/guardian, know that you can also seek the help of professionals to identify if certain behaviours are concerning and they can advise you on how to intervene if it is necessary. Each child explores their sexuality in different ways at different ages, so be ready and comfortable to talk and answer questions about sex, bodies and behaviour at any age.